EDITORIAL: District Court should decide merits of collective bargaining reforms

As if Clark County management and the Service Employees International Union weren’t thoroughly sick of each other, they get to re-argue part of their bitter, recently settled labor dispute all over again this week.

But they’ll largely be wasting their breath starting Monday, because those arguments won’t be made before a District Court judge. Instead, they’ll get a ruling on the application of a new law from a hyperpolitical, nonjudicial body, the state Employee-Management Relations Board.

As it did in its losing pitch to an arbitrator, the SEIU will ask the EMRB to declare that newly enacted labor laws, passed by the 2015 Legislature, don’t actually mean what they say. At issue is Senate Bill 241, which contains collective bargaining reforms that took effect June 1. One of the most important provisions of the law is a prohibition on pay increases for public employees if their bargaining unit’s contract expires and a new contract is not in place.

The Legislature’s Republican majority wanted to undermine so-called “evergreen” clauses, which have long allowed public employees’ compensation increases to continue even when their unions have deliberately dragged out negotiations past a contract’s expiration. By blocking pay raises after a contract’s expiration, lawmakers hoped to compel unions to make more reasonable demands and more quickly reach agreement on contracts.

The SEIU, which represents thousands of county workers, dragged out its contract negotiations with the county for two years because, under the law at the time, it had no financial incentive to resolve the dispute. But when the new law took effect June 1, the county’s workforce wasn’t under contract, so the county froze merit and longevity pay increases, which are based on the anniversary of an employee’s hiring date. Between June 1 and the end of August, when an arbitrator finally settled the impasse and selected the county’s contract offer, more than 700 county employees were denied their merit and longevity pay raises. Under the law, there’s no getting them back.

The SEIU wants the EMRB to declare that because the union’s previous deal had an evergreen clause — the one that expired years ago — SB241 doesn’t apply and those hundreds of workers can collect their raises. Several local public employee unions have filed briefs in support of the SEIU, because the last thing they want is financial pressure to quickly broker new contracts. And it won’t be surprising if the EMRB obliges, considering its goofy pro-union record. Only one member of the EMRB is an attorney, and its commissioner, Bruce Snyder, is a former public sector labor lawyer.

If the EMRB sides with the county, it will have to ignore the law. If public employees can collect retroactive pay raises after a prolonged labor dispute, there will be no incentive for unions to negotiate with urgency.

Whichever side loses this case will probably appeal to District Court, which should be making the decision in the first place. The interpretation of a law passed in the interest of taxpayers can’t be left to a body that’s hostile to them.

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