Union Loses Challenge to Temporary NJ Layoffs

     TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – New Jersey towns and municipalities in dire budgetary straits don’t have to first check with unions before laying off, furloughing or cutting wages, the state’s high court ruled today.
     The international economic downturn was taking hold in 2009 when three New Jersey communities made various cutbacks, including were temporary layoffs in Belmar, involuntary furlough days in Mount Laurel, and Keyport’s conversion of full-time positions to part-time ones.
     None of the municipalities had negotiated the cutbacks with union officials before implementing them.
     A challenge by local chapters of the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, struck a chord with the Public Employment Relations Commission.
     A appellate panel reversed, however, after finding that the unions failed to meet the requirements set in a 1982 case that favors sidestepping union negotiations if they interfere with governmental policy or if a statute or regulation pre-empts them.
     Finding that almost all of the municipalities’ plans were “non-negotiable policy determinations,” the court said Keyport’s plan to reduce health benefits alone broke that rule.
     The unions were dealt another blow Tuesday with a 4-1 split in the state Supreme Court.
     “Municipalities governed by the civil service system have the right to lay off employees when facing exigent financial circumstances,” Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote for the court.
     PERC had “set the bar too high” when determining whether the three local governments had exercised too much unilateral power, the majority added.
     LaVecchia also emphasized that the layoffs actually had support in commission-instituted regulations.
     “The temporary layoff actions at issue here were undertaken by municipalities at a time when [PERC’s] emergency regulation made available an additional management tool to address a pervading financial downturn,” LaVecchia wrote.
     Municipalities in New Jersey are required to balance their budgets on a yearly basis.
     Justice Barry Albin wrote in dissent that the decision “sweeps away nearly fifty years” of New Jersey labor law and negates the one aspect of public employees wages – that they are negotiable, and not subject to “public employer’s fiat.”
     Albin called some of the local governments’ tactics “my-way-or-the-highway” layoffs in which public employees had no recourse.
     “When public employers can unilaterally reduce wages and hours of employees, there is not much left to negotiate,” he wrote.
     The 1982 case on which the majority relied upon was not intended to resolve public employee wage-and-hour negotiations because they are supposed to be negotiable, according to the dissent. Previous cases – such as one in which a school board had inappropriately extended a single school day by a couple hours without first negotiating with unions – bear that out, Albin added.
     “Clearly we live in difficult economic times in which municipalities struggle to balance their budgets,” the dissent states. “[But] none of the municipalities in this case confronted an economic state of emergency so severe that it was left without other reasonable options than furloughing entire units of public employees.”
     Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina did not participate in the ruling.

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