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Amendment: at-will when contracts die

Last modified: 3/23/2011 12:00:00 AM
The House Finance Committee last night approved a change to collective bargaining laws that would give public employers full authority to determine their employees' wages and benefits after a contract expires.

The amendment to the House budget bill, introduced by Weare Republican Rep. Neal Kurk, states that after a contract expires, employees "shall become at-will employees whose salaries, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment shall be at the discretion of the employer."

"If unions who couldn't agree (on a contract) knew that wages, retirement benefits and health care benefits would be at the discretion of the employer, we'd see a much more rapid settlement of contracts, and some of the exceptionally expensive fringe benefits including medical care and pensions would be resolved in a way that made them more affordable," Kurk said.

The amendment passed 18-7, with Republican Lee Quandt of Exeter joining committee Democrats in dissenting.

Quandt said after the vote that there has been an "unprecedented attack" on public employees this legislative session.

"We started a war we don't belong in," Quandt said. "No company or government lasts long when you go to war with your own employees."

The Legislature this session approved a bill getting rid of "evergreen" provisions in public contracts, which provide employees with raises based on years of experience after a contract expires. Democratic Gov. John Lynch let the bill become law without his signature.

Kurk's amendment goes further, attacking a legal principle that wages, health benefits and pension plans remain in effect after a contract expires. Under Kurk's amendment, the employer could make whatever changes he wants to salary or benefits.

"This changes the bargaining dynamics, admittedly in favor of the employer," Kurk said. "There's no doubt about it. It would result in public employee contracts that are more sustainable over time for taxpayers who have to pay for it."

Republicans supporting the amendment said public employees earn more than private employees. Changing the law is an "attempt to level the playing field," said Rep. Paul Simard, a Bristol Republican.

But Democrat Ben Baroody of Manchester said there would be more confusion if every employee were forced to negotiate his own wages and benefits after a contract expires. Baroody said every community should have the option of negotiating an evergreen clause at the bargaining table.

Rep. Randy Foose, a New London Democrat, said that the amendment "absolutely blows up the relationship between state employees and the Legislature and our government."

"It's just an inappropriate effort to swing the pendulum all the way over to one side of the labor-management relationship," Foose said.

Diana Lacey, president of the State Employees' Association, said rather than focusing on balancing the budget, Kurk is creating "unneeded distractions" by raising controversial issues "that no one elected the Legislature to do."

Lacey said the amendment would "blow up core principles we hold in New Hampshire," including the principle of good government.

(Shira Schoenberg can be reached at 369-3319 or sschoenberg@cmonitor.com.)


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