Investigation Finds Merit in Union Complaint

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – There is “probable merit” to the unfair labor practice charge filed by state employee unions after the Legislature nixed their negotiated pay deal, a Montana Department of Labor Investigator said Wednesday in a report.

The unions filed the complaint last month with the Board of Personnel Appeals after the Republican-dominated Legislature refused to adopt raises the unions negotiated with Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer. It was the first time state employee unions have taken such an action. Traditionally those contracts have been ratified by the Legislature.

The original agreement called for raises of 1 percent in 2012 and 3 percent in 2013 at a total cost of about $21 million. The Legislature instead adopted a measure that froze pay for most state workers through the next biennium.

A board investigator in a report issued Wednesday noted that the unions would have been bound to the deal they signed with the governor. Investigator John Andrew pointed out that employer in this case is the state government — made up of the warring branches of government that ended up fighting over the cratered deal.

“In this perfect storm, nurtured by political realities, we are where we are,” Andrew wrote. “The unions are faced with the same public employer taking opposing positions with itself. This inconsistent, mixed message is the definition of bad faith in any conventional bargaining scenario,” the report said, noting the state has no exemption from the rules.

The finding means a hearings examiner will be chosen to gather and weigh evidence in a contested case proceeding. Any order ultimately issued by the board can be appealed to the court system.

But it is uncertain how a finding in favor of the unions, if that is what takes place, could force the state to enter into a new agreement that puts into place the negotiated pay increase — or another deal altogether.

Unions, when they filed the complaint in May, said they hoped a favorable ruling would prompt the governor to call a special session of the Legislature to ratify a new deal. And the unions said they will this time seek an even better deal for a variety of reasons, including evidence that the state budget picture has now improved.

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