HELENA — Three state employee unions have petitioned a District Court judge to reverse a personnel board decision on unfair labor practices regarding raises denied to state employees.
The action comes after several appeals to the state by the MEA-MFT, the state’s teachers union; the Montana Public Employees’ Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 9.
On May 17, the state Board of Personnel Appeals dismissed a complaint the trio of unions filed, claiming that lawmakers acted in bad faith when they rejected an employee pay raise during the 2011 Legislature.
After that hearing, union leaders told Montana Watchdog they would appeal the decision in District Court.
The petition, filed July 11 in 1st Judicial District Court in Helena, pits the unions against the state and Department of Labor and Industry’s BOPA. It asks the court to reverse the BOPA unfair labor practices decision, to send the unfair labor practice charge back to BOPA for a hearing and give the petitioners fees, costs and other relief.
KXLH-TV reported on the unions’ action Wednesday and said the Legislature’s attorney, Daniel Whyte, has filed a motion asking the court to allow the Legislature to “intervene to protect the interests of the state.”
Whyte noted in his Aug. 24 motion that while the state was named in the lawsuit, the unions’ claims were against the Legislature. He wrote that neither the executive branch nor attorney general defended the state before BPOA. He said the Department of Administration did not intend to take a position.
“As a result, the Legislature, as an individual branch of state government, reluctantly moves to intervene to protect the interests of the state,” Whyte wrote.
Oral arguments are due to be submitted to Judge Jeffrey Sherlock by Oct. 12.
The raises, negotiated between Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the unions, were to be enacted for about 12,000 employees, who would receive a 1 percent hike in 2012 and a 3 percent boost in 2013. But legislators said the state could not afford the increases, estimated to cost $19 million to $21 million.
The governor and union officials said the state could afford the raises, as Montana has $496 million in cash reserves. But a State Budget Solutions report Tuesday listed Montana’s state debt at $9.5 billion, including $8.6 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. State workers have gone two years without a raise.
Karl Englund, the attorney representing the three unions, said at the May BOPA hearing that the Legislature delayed action on the enabling legislation, House Bill 13, until it was too late for the unions to react.
Whyte said the Governor’s Office bargained in good faith and that the Legislature’s action did not constitute bad faith. He said the Legislature could not legally be considered a public employer.
In late June, the three unions approved a proposal negotiated with the Schweitzer administration to raise workers’ base pay by 5 percent each in 2013 and 2014. It also calls for increasing the state’s health insurance contribution by 10 percent in each year of the upcoming biennium.
The proposed deal would cost up to $138 million.
The Legislature will vote on that proposal in its next session, which begins in January.
Contact Phil Drake at email@example.com or (406) 442-4561.