Montana Unions Fight To Preserve State Employee Pay Plan

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Three unions have filed an unfair labor practice against the Montana Legislature, charging that legislators failed to bargain in good faith by refusing to act in a timely fashion on the pay plan for state employees.

The MEA-MFT; the Montana Public Employees Association; and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees of Montana filed the ULP with the Montana Board of Personnel Appeals on May 25.

"The legislative majority left us with no other option but legal action," MEA-MFT president Eric Feaver, who also is an AFT vice president, said at the state Capitol during a news conference the three unions held to announce the filing.

Unlike most state governments, Montana's finances are back in the black. "Funding this pay plan agreement was never an issue—the money was always there," said Quint Nyman, executive director of the Montana Public Employees Association. The unions say that the state's economic recovery from the recession is, in part, attributable to state employees who agreed to a two-year pay freeze in the previous pay plan that was submitted to the Legislature for ratification in 2009.

The state pay plan at issue, which the unions negotiated with Gov. Brian Schweitzer, as required by state law, provided a 1 percent salary increase in 2012 and 3 percent in 2013. Union members ratified the plan in November. The Legislature took no substantive action on the pay plan (H.B. 13) until the final days of the legislative session in April.

"The failure of the Legislature to address H.B. 13 in a timely fashion and the resultant late-session defeat of H.B. 13, occurring when there was no time left for the exclusive bargaining agents (the unions) to negotiate a new proposal to submit to the Legislature, constituted a failure of the state, acting through the Legislature, to bargain in good faith with the exclusive representatives of its employees," the complaint says.

The ULP goes on to state that the duty to bargain in good faith requires that all concerned parties keep an open and fair mind and work together with "a sincere desire to reach an agreement in a spirit of amity and cooperation. The manner in which the Legislature handled H.B. 13 utterly failed to meet this standard.

"The legislative majority has failed each and every state employee," said Timm Twardoski, executive director of AFSCME Montana Council 9. "It's unimaginable to ask anyone to take a pay freeze for five calendar years with no explanation."

"We're not done with the state pay plan yet," added Feaver. "We're fighting for our state employee members, who got a raw deal from the Republican-dominated Legislature."

In an alert to state employee members, MEA-MFT explained that if the Board of Personnel Appeals finds in favor of the unions, "the unions will demand that the state come back to the bargaining table to negotiate. This could force the Legislature back into special session to ratify a pay plan agreement."

In an open letter submitted to Montana newspapers, Feaver wrote: "Everybody in Montana should know that the 2011 Legislature threw state employees under the bus for no fiscal reason whatsoever." [Kathy Nicholson, MEA-MFT]

May 26, 2011