Unions file lawsuit challenging overhaul of state’s merit system

   

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A coalition of labor unions representing state workers is seeking to have a court block a new state law that made significant changes to Missouri’s Merit System for state employees.

The three unions filed the lawsuit in Cole County Circuit Court on Wednesday alleging that the new law violates provisions of the Missouri Constitution. The case has been assigned to Judge Jon Beetem.

Senate Bill 1007, sponsored by then-Sen. Mike Kehoe, was given approval by the General Assembly during the 2018 regular session and signed into law by then-Gov. Eric Greitens on June 1, 2018 — the same day he resigned his position.

“Former Governor Greitens may have thought he could throw away the hard-won rights of dedicated public service workers on his way out the door,” said AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan. “But the Missouri constitution says otherwise. We are fighting this unjust and illegal attack on the rights of our members every step of the way, and we are confident that justice will prevail.”

In 1946, the General Assembly passed the “State Merit System Law,” which created the Personnel Advisory Board and the state’s Division of Personnel. The law has been updated over the decades in attempts to improve management practices and to streamline personnel systems.

According to the Office of Administration’s webpage, the system was designed to protect employees from arbitrary actions, personal favoritism, and political coercion

The overhaul of the merit system brings the majority of state employees into the “at will” category. “At will” employees may be selected at the discretion of the appointing authority, serve at the pleasure of the appointing authority, and may be discharged – as the statute says – for no reason or any reason not prohibited by law. The merit reform law does not change whistleblower, sexual harassment, or discrimination protections for employees.

SB 1007 was touted as giving the state greater flexibility to increase the talent pool of job applicants and hire the best-qualified candidates.

“Enabling managers to place the right employees in the right jobs, based on their skills and performance, will make their units more productive and allow managers to better recognize and reward employees for superior performance,” now-Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe said the day the law went into effect.

But the unions are arguing that the law strips public service workers of collectively bargained protections on the job and infringes on rights enshrined in the Missouri Constitution’s Bill of Rights

“The adoption of SB 1007 and Defendants’ unilateral adoption of emergency rules and policies, and their refusal to consider grievances, have impaired the obligations in the (collective bargaining agreements) of Plaintiffs to the detriment of Plaintiffs and bargaining unit employees,” the lawsuit said. “This impairment is substantial and those eliminations cannot be justified as reasonable and necessary to serve an important public purpose.”

“SB 1007 is an attack on our fundamental rights as workers to organize and our ability to collectively bargain. Unions of public workers have the infrastructure to protect workers from unjust actions in the workplace and fight for the crucial services that members of our communities need to survive,” said CWA Local 6355 President Natashia Pickens.

The unions challenging the law are the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 61, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1, and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 6355.

Defendants are the state government as a whole along with the Office of Administration and various departments including Social Services, Health and Senior Services, Agriculture, Corrections, Mental Health, Natural Resources, Public Safety, and Revenue.

Alisha Shurr is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine. She joined the Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University. Contact Alisha at alisha@themissouritimes.com.