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Scott Mooneyham: Union legislation may create quandary

RALEIGH ó For more than a decade, Congress has been considering but not passing something called the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act.
This chummy-sounding piece of legislation would guarantee police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians the right to form unions that can engage in collective bargaining with their public employers. For these workers, state prohibitions against collective bargaining, like North Carolina’s, would no longer apply.
Last year, the legislation failed only because of a Republican-led Senate filibuster backed by a promise of a presidential veto.
Odds are the same won’t happen this year, and the legislation will pass.
If so, the reaction in North Carolina, historically anti-union and supportive of right-to-work laws, will prove interesting.
Congressional passage of the bill would present something of a quandary for the state’s political leadership, one that state employee groups will gladly and promptly point out to the policymakers.
How can you give rights to one group of state or local government employees and not give those same rights to other employees? A highway patrolman has the right to negotiate his or her pay, but a social worker, sometimes visiting dangerous neighborhoods, doesn’t? An EMT can be a member of a union that negotiates a labor contract, but the nurse at a public hospital can’t?
A few Democratic leaders may actually enjoy being tossed into this briar patch.
Over the last decade, Democratic candidates in the state have increasingly tapped union political action committees for donations. The unions, from the AFL-CIO to the Service Employees Union International, which affiliated with the State Employees Association of North Carolina, have become more active here.
It’s no secret what the unions want: collective bargaining rights for public employees, giving the unions a new pool of workers to recruit and organize.
A couple of years ago, Gov. Mike Easley rolled the union ball forward a bit by approving an executive order that included language about conferring with state employee groups while putting together a budget proposal. That budget proposal, of course, includes state employee pay and benefits.
Still, even as the national unions and state employee groups push collective bargaining, that traditional recalcitrance remains. Among just the Democrats in the legislature, a proposal to drop the state’s collective bargaining ban would likely have failed in the past.
Times change though. Among a growing, changing population, there’s less anti-union sentiment.
And a tough economy that’s put the squeeze on state spending may well shape any debate.
Over the next two years, state employees won’t be seeing much in the way of pay raises. They’ll probably be hit with higher health insurance co-payments and deductibles to help shore up the troubled State Health Plan. Some might face layoffs.
State employees aren’t going to be happy.
To placate state employees, those political leaders might just start thinking about what had been the unthinkable, especially if they’ve already been forced to start down the slippery slope.
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Scott Mooneyham is a columnist for Capitol Press Association.

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