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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kurk amendment surely no bargain

Telegraph Editorial

If this is the House Republican leadership’s definition of a “level playing field,” remind us not to challenge them to a sporting contest on their home turf.

For there is nothing level-headed – or fair, for that matter – about their latest gambit to drastically change collective bargaining for more than 50,000 public employees in New Hampshire as they know it, including police, firefighters, teachers and other state and county workers.

We’re not sure what we find more disturbing: That House Republican leaders want to take a jackhammer to the state’s collective bargaining laws or that they chose to do so through a 70-word amendment in a 146-page budget trailer bill, rather than through separate legislation that would have been subject to its own public hearing and up-or-down vote.

Last week, the House Finance Committee voted, 18-7, to approve an amendment introduced by Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican, to a bill (HB 2) that would make the necessary changes in law to implement the House’s two-year budget bill (HB 1) should it be adopted.

Specifically, the amendment states that if no agreement is reached before the expiration of a contract, “the terms of the collective bargaining agreement shall cease and all employees subject to the agreement shall become at-will employees whose salaries, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment shall be at the discretion of the employer.”

In other words, union members can either accept the latest offer or live with the consequences.

For his part, Kurk insists that the intent of his amendment is not to end collective bargaining, but rather to “give a little more leverage” to state labor negotiators.

“This is not like Wisconsin,” he said, referring to the controversial new law that restricts collective bargaining to wages. “This does not affect collective bargaining. This does not eliminate unions.”

Technically, that is true – public employers and unions would still be able to negotiate new contracts as they do now should Kurk’s amendment become law.

But what is the incentive for a government body to negotiate with any urgency if it knows it can set wages, benefits and other conditions of employment for its “at-will” employees by just running out the clock on the existing contract?

“What this sets up is a dynamic in which you hang a sword of Damocles over the middle-class workers until they agree to a contract,” said David Lang, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, whose members will stage a Statehouse rally Thursday.

The collective bargaining process works best when both sides have an incentive to reach an agreement. That’s why we supported the Republican-backed repeal of the so-called “evergreen law” earlier this year, which tilted the balance too far in favor of unions by permitting step increases to automatically kick in upon the expiration of a contract.

But what House Republican leaders are advocating here – despite their lame protests to the contrary – is far more than a leveling of the playing field. It is a blatant assault on the principles of good-faith bargaining dictated by political ideology under the guise of fiscal responsibility.