Selective Bargaining? Arkansas Attacks Collective Bargaining for Select Public Employees

by Maxim Applegate, senior at Hendrix College and Legislative Intern with the Democratic Party of Arkansas. 

In its 93rd session, the Arkansas General Assembly is considering an attack on workers’ rights. SB 341 prohibits public employers from recognizing a labor union or other public employee association as a bargaining agent for public employees and makes it legal to fire any public worker who strikes or obstructs the operations of a public employer. It contains numerous exceptions that raise questions about the efficacy of the policy and undermine its intent.

Collective bargaining is the most effective mechanism for workers to negotiate wages, schedules, safe working conditions and benefits like healthcare and retirement. Often, the individual worker is disadvantaged in negotiations because employers have access to more information and legal resources that can be used to resist common sense and fair requests for better  pay, better benefits or safer workplaces. Banding together with other workers under a union to negotiate contracts helps workers approach parity with employer’s relative bargaining power.  

The problem that SB 341 solves in Arkansas is unclear on several levels. First, the number of exceptions to the collective bargaining and strike prohibitions lead to an uneven application of the intended policy. For example, the bill excludes police officers, firefighters, county and municipal employees, and with a new amendment in the House, public transit employees whose employers receive federal funding. 

Excluding some public professions but targeting others (i.e., teachers and state employees) undermines Senator Bob Ballinger’s, R-Hindsville, argument that if a public employee were “to strike, then [they] are actually working against that [public trust] … [they] are striking against the very citizens of the state of Arkansas.” But allowing certain public employees the power to undermine public trust while preventing others from doing so reveals the inherent inconsistency in arguments for this policy. 

Senator Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, pressed him to provide a reason for the exceptions, and Senator Ballinger justified them as a preservation of local control. “That’s a policy decision that should be made on a local level,” he said, but this clashes directly with the local nature of school districts, which are prohibited from entering into collective bargaining agreements with teacher’s unions under this bill. Senator Elliott later spoke against the bill, pointing out its unnecessarily discriminatory and inconsistent nature. 

Second, the remaining groups prohibited from collective bargaining, namely teachers and state employees, do not currently have any recognized collective bargaining contracts in the state. Senator Ballinger himself acknowledged this when opening for his bill on the Senate floor, so the legislation does not even affect public union activity in the state as it currently exists. It merely asserts a grandstanding solution to a non-existent problem.

Third, public unions have not shown themselves to be problematic or disruptive in Arkansas. Since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting detailed work stoppage data in 1993, no public unions have gone on strike in the state, and there have only been three private sector strikes. The Little Rock teacher’s strike in 2019 against the State Board of Education’s undemocratic termination of their collective bargaining contract is not included in the data because there were less than 1,000 workers involved. It only lasted one day. Any argument that public unions threaten the operation of government (e.g. the argument that teacher’s unions hurt students) simply exaggerates the actual impact of public employee strikes.  

What problem, then, does this bill solve? Arkansas already suppresses union organizing with its “right to work” Amendment in the Arkansas Constitution that prevents unions from collecting dues from non-members who still benefit from collective bargaining agreements. Despite the state’s anti-union agenda, union membership in the state has been on the rise for the past several years. Lindsay Brown, Vice-President of the AFL-CIO’s Central Arkansas Labor Council, says this is because younger workers recognize how unions benefit the entire workforce. 

“What a union can bargain for,” he explained, “whether it’s in a manufacturing plant or if it’s on a construction site, union wages, and union contracts and benefits bring along the non-union, because a good employer or contractor’s wanting to keep up with what the union’s doing to keep his or her workforce.” It can only be assumed then that SB 341 is an attempt to create a more hostile environment for union organizing in the state by undermining some of the most unionized occupations

Ultimately, it is up to employees to self-determine how they advocate for themselves. It is not the paternalistic responsibility of the legislature to predetermine how individuals can negotiate. The attempt to do so is degrading and ironic, considering legislators can indirectly manipulate their own salary and benefits by making favorable appointments to the Independent Citizens Commission that determines their salaries. 

What Senators have essentially said this week is that the jobs and occupations exempt from SB 341 are more valuable and trustworthy than the ones that are not. It is a condescending indictment of valuable professionals like teachers and state employees, who have served dutifully to keep our schools open and government running throughout the COVID-19 pandemic despite the risks to their lives. They deserve thanks, appreciation and autonomy, not a kneecapping of their ability to fight for economic and personal security. Senator Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, spoke against this blatant patronization on the Senate floor.

The inconsistent and targeted nature of SB 341 conflicts with its intent and passing it would constitute a paternalism about public sector employees that is discriminatory, condescending and a violation of their rights as workers. It is right that teachers and state employees can negotiate to ensure their workplace protects and provides for them. It is wrong to make it illegal for them to do so while preserving this right for others. 

Image from the Kheel Center on Flickr.