Three Montana public employee unions have filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the State Board of Personnel Appeals over the legislature's refusal to approve pay raises the unions had negotiated with Governor Brian Schweitzer. The Billings Gazette reports that the unfair labor practice complaint is unprecedented in the state.
Union officials argue that the legislature's action is particularly unfair because of Montana's relatively robust fiscal position and constitutes a breach of "good faith" bargaining. "Everybody in Montana should know that the 2011 Legislature threw state employees under the bus for no fiscal reason whatsoever," the president of one of the unions insisted in a recent op-ed . Montana state employees agreed to wage freezes at the bargaining table during the prevous budget cycle, and insist they are due for raises this time.
Republicans, who control the legislature, respond that Montana's strong current fiscal condition is due largely to one-time revenues, including a large coal lease bonus payment, and that relying on these funds to pay for ongoing employee raises would be fiscally irresponsible.
The legislature has the authority to approve or reject pay raises negotiated with public employees. But in the past, lawmakers have tended to defer to contract agreements negotiated between the governor and employee unions. According to the State Office of Labor Relations, this has been true for at least the past four two-year budget cycles.
Most Western states don't allow collective bargaining for state employees, but Montana is an exception. The state government is required by law to bargain with workers over wages, hours, fringe benefits and working conditions. The state has a higher public sector unionization rate than any of its neighbors.