Collective Bargaining Under the Missouri Constitution
As the Springfield News-Leader reports, Judge Michael Cordonnier of the Greene County Circuit Court handed down a very important decision yesterday. Several months ago, the Springfield School District announced a new collective bargaining policy in which teachers would get to choose: (1) whether they wanted to have official bargaining representation provided by just one teachers’ union, multiple teachers’ unions, or no teachers’ unions at all; and, (2) which union(s), if any, would be chosen as representatives.
The Springfield chapter of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, filed a lawsuit arguing (among other things) that the Missouri Constitution should be read to require employee groups to choose only one exclusive bargaining agent, selected by the majority. The SNEA (which claims to have more than half of the district’s teachers on its membership rolls) wanted to prevent teachers from even voting on the possibility of multiple representation, and instead to have a winner-takes-all election in which it would likely be chosen to represent even those teachers who did not want their services.
Fortunately, Judge Cordonnier recognized that the Missouri Constitution requires nothing of the kind. In a very well-reasoned decision, he pointed out that the section of the Missouri Constitution that protects employees’ rights to bargain collectively specifies that they must be permitted to have “representatives” of their own choosing. As the judge noted, that word “is unambiguous, plural, and must be read to include the possibility of more than one representative.” In other words, nothing in the language of the Constitution supported the SNEA’s argument that employees must choose a single exclusive bargaining representative. The court further pointed out that the Missouri Supreme Court has previously held that “employees who choose not to be represented by the majority union continue to have a constitutional right to present their issues to [their] employer,” and they may do so as a group, with an “informally elected representative.”
I am thrilled that the judge made these points. What the SNEA misconstrued about the constitutional right to bargain collectively is that the right itself belongs to individual employees. The SNEA’s reasoning suggested that no individual had a particular right to a representative of their own choosing; to the contrary, the union argued that if a majority of any ill-defined group of employees wanted a particular representative, then all other employees in that group must be bound by the majority’s preference. Judge Cordonnier’s option saw through that argument, however, and he reaffirmed what the Missouri Supreme Court has previously stated — that employees must be free to choose their own bargaining agents, and neither the government nor a union can deny them that right.
Anyone interested in these issues needs to know that they’ll be hearing more about this in the future. The head of the SNEA would not commit to an appeal of this case to the Missouri Supreme Court, but it is a very safe bet that they’ll ask the high court to reverse Judge Cordonnier’s ruling. Additionally, at about the same time that the SNEA launched this lawsuit, another local chapter sued the Bayless School District in the St. Louis area, making almost precisely the same arguments. Even if the SNEA does not pursue its case further, the union will be pushing for success in the Bayless lawsuit.