Nebraska corrections workers missed deadline in seeking new union, high court rules

LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily dashed the hopes of state corrections officers who sought to be represented by a new union.

The court ruled that the prospective new union, the Nebraska Protective Services Unit, had missed a key deadline for making the change.

But Gary Young, an attorney for the prospective union, said the corrections officers have not given up their quest to replace the Nebraska Association of Public Employees as their union.

While they were disappointed in the ruling, he said, they are now looking at submitting signatures later this year to request a vote on making the switch.

“The people that are in corrections, they want to have control over their own destiny,” Young said. “They want to be the ones sitting at the bargaining table.”

The ruling concerned the timing of signatures previously submitted to the Commission of Industrial Relations requesting a vote on representation. The signatures were filed on March 3, 2017.

But the commission denied the request, ruling that the signatures should have been filed at least 60 days, but not more than 120 days, before the start of bargaining for a new state employee contract.

As required by state law, negotiations for the 2017-19 contract began on Sept. 14, 2016. The contract was ratified in January 2017 and took effect July 1.

The prospective union argued that rules and regulations provided two deadline options, with the second one being at least 60 days, but not more than 120 days, before the end of the existing contract.

The state high court rejected the union argument, saying the language of the state rule “is not ambiguous or open to interpretation.”

Young said the group had not started organizing until August 2016 and could not meet the earlier deadline. They turned in 683 signatures — equal to 43 percent of the proposed bargaining unit, surpassing the 30 percent required — in March.

The vote would have asked state corrections officers whether they wanted to decertify NAPE as their collective bargaining agent and to certify the prospective union, which is affiliated with the Fraternal Order of Police, instead.

Supporters of the change have said joining the Fraternal Order of Police could improve the group’s chances of getting better wages and working conditions to combat high worker turnover and low morale in the state’s troubled prison system. Security workers at the Lincoln Regional Center also would be part of the new union.

NAPE is Nebraska’s largest state employees union, representing about 10,000 state employees. The FOP represents corrections workers in Douglas and Lancaster Counties, as well as police officers and sheriffs deputies across the state.