South Dakota is considering a Wisconsin-style ban on public sector collective bargaining at all levels of government. But because many public workers have limited or nonexistent bargaining rights to begin with, the debate is causing considerable confusion.
South Dakota is a "right-to-work" state, meaning that employees cannot be compelled to pay union fees as a condition of their employment even if they work in a unionized environment. Only 5.1 percent of workers in South Dakota belong to a union. Binding arbitration and other labor-friendly provisions that have proven controversial in debates about collective bargaining in Midwestern states like Wisconsin and Ohio aren't allowed under current South Dakota law.
The confusion culminated in state Senator Stan Adelstein, the bill's chief sponsor in the Senate, abruptly withdrawing his support for the legislation. "I will no longer be the Senate sponsor of this House Bill, and, in fact will actively oppose it," he said in a January 28 statement. Just the day before, he was quoted in the Rapid City Journal explaining his sponsorship of the bill: "I've opposed collective bargaining through the years, because it's always seemed to me that it benefits those who are not interested in compensation based on their efforts," he said.
Adelstein said conversations with friends and supporters on both sides of the aisle convinced him that the legislation is unnecessary and would pose unintended consequences for teachers, police and fire fighters. The bill "would be in opposition to my values of supporting fair compensation, and recognition for our State's capable public employees. Further study has shown me that South Dakota is NOT Wisconsin, and passage of this bill into law would cause grievous harm."
Few state workers are represented by unions, which can bargain only over work conditions, not salary. The South Dakota Employees Association, an organization that lobbies the legislature on behalf of state workers and is not a union, is opposing the legislation. "State law already bans collective bargaining and unions for the most part," says Eric Ollila, the organization's executive director. "Those bans affect nearly everything that's substantial. We don't want our employees to lose any more of their rights."
Still, the organization's key legislative priority is fighting for state employees' first salary increase since 2008. Besides a likely 3 percent increase, Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard has proposed a one-time 5 percent bonus to help make up for salary freezes in recent years. Average state worker salaries have actually been decreasing, from $38,084 in 2011 to $37,301 today, according to the South Dakota Bureau of Personnel.