Public employee unions fear loss of numbers under new Kansas law

Public employee unions in Kansas say they are concerned a new law that took effect July 1 will further reduce their membership and the job protections that come with it.

“I am expecting our numbers to continue to decrease as they have been decreasing throughout this administration,” said Rebecca Proctor, interim director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, or KOSE, the state’s largest public employee union.

The new law, contained in House Bill 2391, gives state agencies more flexibility to change an employee’s job duties and to move positions from classified to unclassified service.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed it into law May 11, and it became effective July 1.

Kansas Secretary of Administration Jim Clark, who is retiring this month, requested the bill, saying that in a modern work environment, supervisors need more flexibility to adjust job duties and reorganize positions.

Department of Administration spokesman John Milburn said the change was not aimed at reducing union membership, and that moving positions from classified to unclassified will not automatically remove them from union protection.

“There are some positions represented by KOSE that are unclassified already,” Milburn said.

Under state law, people in classified positions are protected by the Kansas Civil Service Act, which entitles them to due process hearings before they can be fired or disciplined. That law is intended to make sure that hiring and firing of state employees is based on merit and performance, rather than political patronage.

But whether a position is covered by a union collective bargaining contract, Milburn said, is determined by the specific job description and duties that are performed. He said the Public Employer-Employee Relations Act, or PEERA, sets out which jobs are covered by collective bargaining and which are not.

Milburn acknowledged, however, that it is possible some employees could be removed from collective bargaining if the agency decides to make significant changes in the person’s job description.

“They would still have to work under the PERB designations,” Milburn said.

Proctor, however, said she believes that reducing worker protections and curbing the power of labor unions has been part of the Brownback administration’s agenda since he came into office.

She said KOSE currently represents a little less than 9,000 state workers. That’s down from its peak of about 13,000 members in 2007 and 2008, she said.

“Gov. Brownback bragged in his State of the State address about cutting 3,000 positions,” Proctor said. “Our unit, from October 2014 to January 2015, lost 500 positions.”

House Bill 2391 was one of two significant bills considered during the 2015 session that dealt directly with protections and bargaining rights of public employees.

The other, House Bill 2096, would have gone much further by eliminating the Public Employee Relations Board and repealing the right of employees to file grievances. It also would have repealed laws providing for mediation, fact-finding, and arbitration in public employer-employee relations, and it would have limited collective bargaining to just the issues of salaries and wages, eliminating other issues such as hours of work and other benefits.

That bill passed the House in February, 79-42, but it stalled in the Senate over disagreements about another provision that would have prohibited public employers from using their payroll system to deduct union dues and charitable contributions from employee paychecks.

It was eventually pulled off the Senate’s calendar and referred back to the Ways and Means Committee where it remains alive so it can be reconsidered during the 2016 session.

— Peter Hancock can be reached at (785) 354-4222. Email him at