Here’s how collective bargaining works for public employees in Kansas, according to a Kansas University law professor. Teachers are treated under a different section of the law but undergo a similar bargaining process.
• First, it’s not called “collective bargaining” in the statute. The employee and employer may “meet and confer” to enter into a “memorandum of agreement.”
• No strikes or lockouts are allowed for public employees in Kansas, so whenever there’s an impasse in negotiations, it’s resolved through a combination of mediation and fact-finding.
• If negotiations aren’t completed by a determined deadline in the law, and mediation hasn’t resolved the issue, an independent fact-finder is appointed.
• The fact-finder issues an independent recommendation, and if the parties can’t agree to that, then the dispute is resolved by the Legislature or other governing body involved. That, in essence, makes the ultimate decision rest with the employer, giving employees an extra incentive to strike a deal before it gets that far.
Teachers in Wisconsin continue to express their anger over being stripped of their collective bargaining powers.
Kansas University distinguished law professor Elinor Schroeder studies labor laws and is paying attention to what’s happening in Wisconsin.
While not familiar with that state’s laws, Schroeder guessed that Wisconsin would be friendlier to unions, given that Wisconsin was the first state to adopt collective bargaining, and because it was a more liberal state than Kansas.
Also, Kansas is a right-to-work state, meaning that it’s illegal to require that a person pay union dues and fees as a condition of employment. Wisconsin has no such restrictions.
In Kansas, when negotiations between teachers and school boards break down, mediators and fact-finders are called in, but their recommendations aren’t binding. School boards have the ultimate choice in whether to accept or reject those recommendations.
Iowa, for example, has a stronger law for unions, said David Schauner, general counsel for the Kansas National Education Association. That law requires school administrators and teachers to submit their last, best offers to a mediator. That independent third party then makes a recommendation that’s binding for both sides.
Schauner said that while the KNEA wasn’t completely happy with the structure of the labor laws in Kansas, he’d probably give them a “seven, maybe a seven and a half,” on a scale from one to 10, with a 10 being the best law.
“These parties will be in a working relationship with one another indefinitely, so bargaining ought to be like problem-solving,” he said.
As is the case in Wisconsin, workers can get pretty upset when collective bargaining rights are curtailed, Schroeder said.
In addition to using the collective negotiating power to get better wages, benefits, working conditions and other concessions, studies show that the most important thing unions do for employees is that it gives them a say.
“It gives them a way to express their voice against the power of the employer,” Schroeder said.
It’s hard, she said, to stand up as an individual, for fear of repercussions.
Could what’s happening in Wisconsin happen in Kansas? Unions are sometimes an easy target for conservative lawmakers, Schroeder said.
“Hopefully it wouldn’t happen, but it’s conceivable,” Schroeder said.