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Missouri high court revives anti-union law

The unanimous ruling reversed a state judge's injunction that found a measure making public workers at-will workers to be unconstitutional.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) — Missouri’s high court on Tuesday found a Republican-backed law that stripped public employees of collectively bargained rights is constitutional, reversing a state judge’s permanent injunction that barred the state from implementing the law.

“This court finds the circuit court’s judgment erroneously declared and applied the law,” Supreme Court Judge W. Brent Powell wrote in the unanimous 33-page decision that sent the matter back to the state court for further deliberations.

At issue is a 2018 law approved by Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature designed to weaken unions. Once the law went into effect, public employee union members became at-will employees who could be fired at anytime.

Three unions — American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, Council 61; Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO, Local 6355; and Service Employees International Union, Local 1 — filed a lawsuit challenging the law.

“SB 1007 mandates at-will employment and restricts the state’s ability to agree to terms of employment inconsistent with at-will employment,” Powell wrote. “Because the scope and definition of at-will employment provide for indefinite duration and termination without cause, SB 1007 prevents the state from negotiating employment terms and conditions that limit the duration of employment or require cause for termination of employment. This court finds these restrictions on collective bargaining do not infringe on Missouri’s constitutional right to bargain collectively.”

Attorneys for both sides did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In their lawsuit, the unions claim the law violates the Missouri Constitution’s right to collectively bargain.

“In addition, the emergency regulations and proposed rules that put Senate Bill 1007 into effect are unconstitutional in that they preclude defendants from bargaining about significant terms and conditions of employment, and authorize defendants to make changes to collectively bargained terms and conditions of employment, whether in writing in existing labor agreements or as embodied in expired labor agreements,” the lawsuit states.

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem, a Republican, found the law unconstitutional and issued a permanent injunction against the law in September 2021, prompting the appeal to the state high court.

“In addition, the evidence demonstrates that both the unions and employees have been harmed in fact,” Beetem wrote in a 43-page judgement. “By repudiating plaintiff’s collective bargaining agreement, refusing to process grievances, and refusing to bargain over core issues like just cause, seniority, and grievance procedures, defendants have eviscerated the parties’ long history of collective bargaining.”

The state high court, however, found that the law limits, but doesn’t eliminate the collective bargaining process.

“SB 1007, however, does not explicitly prohibit at-will employees from bargaining over terms and conditions of employment,” Powell wrote. “Instead, certain terms and conditions of employment are simply no longer guaranteed by law as they are for merit employees. The only term and condition of employment mandated by SB 1007 that would impact collective bargaining for non-merit state employees is the at-will employment requirement.”

SB 1007 was part of two anti-union laws pushed by former Republican Gov. Eric Greitens before he resigned from office in disgrace amid multiple investigations including probes prompted by an affair with his hairdresser and campaign finance questions.

The other law, which the Missouri Supreme Court found unconstitutional in 2021, required some employee unions to receive annual approval to withhold dues from paychecks.

But the court did not follow suit in this ruling.

“SB 1007, therefore, restricts the State from bargaining over terms and conditions of employment that provide for a definite duration of employment or require cause for termination,” Powell, who was appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court by Greitens in 2017, wrote. “But SB 1007 does not limit state executive departments and agencies from bargaining over terms and conditions of employment that do not similarly conflict with at-will employment.”

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