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Another View -- Richard Gulla: Court could strike a blow against unions, workers

March 22. 2018 8:54PM

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on Janus vs. AFSCME, a monumental case that has the power to weaken unions nationally, as early as the end of this month.

The outcome of the case could swiftly eliminate the model that unions in New Hampshire and across the nation have long relied on — employees who receive the rights and benefits from union contract negotiations make a small contribution for that representation.

The ultimate goal in the Janus case is simple, to reduce the ability of workers to establish and maintain a collective voice in their employment relationship.

During oral arguments, court watchers waited for the expected deciding vote — Justice Neil Gorsuch — to weigh in, but he remained silent. Another silence can be heard over here in New Hampshire, too.

It’s been over a month since Gov. Chris Sununu held his State of the State speech, and his continued silence on securing a fair contract for state employees with a fair pay adjustment speaks volumes. His current offer to state employees is 0 percent.

New Hampshire’s public servants have been nearly 265 days without a contract. The day-to-day implications of this affects workers’ morale and pockets. For example, when the state contract expired at the end of June, another necessity did too: the $200 work boots reimbursement many state workers rely on to buy the required safety boots they need to perform their job.

The Department of Transportation crews are particularly dependent on this reimbursement, as a pair of these boots typically lasts a year depending on how much snow, slush, and water crews face.

I asked Gov. Sununu to sign a memorandum of understanding, allowing the reimbursement to continue while we tried to negotiate with him, but he refused.

This leaves DOT workers, some of whom earn around $24,000 a year, to choose between paying for new boots out of pocket or be ill-equipped to perform their job. This is unacceptable.

Our attempts to negotiate with Gov. Sununu’s bargaining team have led nowhere because the governor has offered nothing. We took our case to a factfinder, who acts as an independent adviser to both sides, and he is expected to issue his recommendations soon.

At the outset, the adviser encouraged both parties to continue to negotiate and, if possible, reach a deal prior to a report being issued. The governor and his team have refused to do so.

Most remarkably, Gov. Sununu issued a statement supporting a loss for unions in the Janus case in spite of the fact that we represent thousands of state employees.

Make no mistake: The governor wants the U.S. Supreme Court to turn us into a Right-to-Work state, despite the fact that the New Hampshire Legislature and Granite Staters have previously rejected these efforts.

Negotiating a fair contract with state workers is an opportunity for the governor to invest in his workforce, helping to stem the tide of personnel turnover and the difficulties in recruiting workers.

As a business owner, he should know it’s basic business sense to attract and retain talent with more than just words of praise but with a quantifiable gesture. Why is he stalling?

If his Janus statement is an indication, perhaps he’s waiting for a weaker union to come to the bargaining table.

Perhaps he values his own ideological interests over the struggles and needs of New Hampshire’s public servants. And perhaps the interests of workers simply aren’t his top priority.

Regardless of the Janus outcome, as one of New Hampshire’s largest unions, we will remain strong in our commitment to represent workers and their families.

Gov. Sununu may get the decision he wants at the Supreme Court, but he’ll be disappointed if he’s counting on this union and others to concede to him.

There’s too much at stake for our families and communities for us to give up now. We’ll carry on with greater resolve to make sure our voice is heard.

Richard Gulla is president of SEA/SEIU Local 1984.

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