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Retooling Collective-Bargaining Changes Should Restore Efficiency And Flexibility

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The fight brewing in the Ohio legislature over Senate Bill 5 could be monumental, but it is necessary.

Ohio laws governing collective bargaining for public employees and teachers union contracts deprive public employers– that is, taxpayers– of essential management rights.

At the core, they hamper public employers’ ability to decide how much tax money to spend on personnel, which makes up the bulk of most government budgets.

That was objectionable enough in flush times, but as state and local leaders grapple with crushing budget deficits, it is unsustainable.

The rules have to change, to free state agencies and local governments of many of the employment mandates that have burdened budgets and stymied innovation and flexibility.

The bill, sponsored by Shannon Jones, state senator, (R) Springboro, proposes sweeping changes, including eliminating the right of state employees to bargain collectively, calling instead for merit-based pay and promotion.

The debate will be furious, and revisions are likely. The bill’s initial hearing on Wednesday attracted 800 opponents, mainly public employees.

Much of the change it proposes would affect Ohio’s union-friendly collective-bargaining law, which essentially has been unchallenged since it was established in 1983.

Others would change parts of the education statutes that granted public-school teachers disproportionate bargaining power even before the collective-bargaining law was passed.

Before 1983, some state employees and many working for cities, villages and school districts belonged to unions and negotiated contracts with their employers.

The subjects addressed by contracts, as well as their terms, were dictated in large part by political conditions, including what taxpayers in a given jurisdiction were likely to support.

Public-school teachers already enjoyed many benefits written into state law, including an automatic 15 days of sick leave per year and minimum salary levels with builtin automatic increases after specified years of service.

The collective-bargaining law added another layer of favor for teachers and other public employees, by dictating a timetable and process for bargaining, including provisions that allow outside parties to impose or strongly infl uence settlements, through arbitration or fact-finding, if the parties can’t agree.

Collective-bargaining supporters point out that the relatively few contracts resolved through outside arbitration have ended up with salary increases roughly at the halfway point between management’s and labor’s demands.

Note that this means that, overall, arbitration always results in employers (that is, taxpayers) paying more than they wanted to.

This also ignores the reality that the existence of those rules, especially the prospect of binding arbitration, influences the entire bargaining process.

Employers might concede more than they otherwise would at the bargaining table, knowing that an arbitrator or fact-finder might deem them “unreasonable.”

School districts could benefi t from changes in bargaining terms. Because school boards have not always stood up to union demands, Jones’ bill would take away some of their latitude to give away the store.

For example, the bill would prohibit districts from giving up the right to deploy teachers in school buildings as needed.

It also would weaken, though not eliminate, the importance of seniority in deciding who is affected by layoffs.

A provision that could save billions for taxpayers holds that health insurance can’t be a matter for collective bargaining. Management would choose a plan to offer, as is the case for most private companies, and employees would have to pay at least 20 percent of the premium.

Currently, school-district employees typically pay 10 percent, while workers in the private sector pay 17 percent to 30 percent.

At a time when cutbacks will be required at all levels of government, public-sector managers need flexibility to put resources toward the services the public needs most.

Rigid employment rules and contracts make that impossible.

Instead of preserving programs (and jobs) through pay freezes or pay cuts, for example, the only choice available in a budget crisis is to cut positions and programs.

Then, nobody wins except those employees who, by seniority, hold on to the remaining jobs.

Changing bargaining law won’t be easy, but lawmakers have a chance to greatly improve the state and local governments’ ability to grapple with unprecedented challenges.–Columbus Dispatch

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