Appeals court rules Missouri violated collective bargaining rights of prison guards


Parson administration refused to allow paycheck deductions to starve the corrections workers’ union during negotiations

Jefferson City — A state appeals court recently shot down an attempt by Gov. Mike Parson’s administration to bust the Labor union representing the state’s prison guards.

In a ruling issued Dec. 6, the Western District Court of Appeals found Parson’s administration improperly tried to starve the Labor union representing Missouri corrections officers by cutting it off from dues deducted from paychecks during negotiations.

In a unanimous ruling, the Western District Court of Appeals called arguments by the Republican governor’s administration “absurd” and upheld a lower court decision requiring the state to fully recognize the Missouri Corrections Officers Association (MOCOA), which represents the employees overseeing felons at the state’s 20 prisons.

The court ordered the state to resume dues deductions for the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, affirming a September 2021 order issued by Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem.

Tim Cutt, director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, called the decision “good for the employees,” in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Now, getting back to the negotiating table is the next big step,” Cutt told the Post.

The state stopped automatic withdrawal of union dues in 2019 as the Office of Administration (OA) and the union were negotiating a new contract. The state argued at the time that the workers were no longer in a union since the contract had expired.

The move left the association with a massive funding shortfall, resulting in the closure of its headquarters, the loss of two staff and an end to the payout of hardship benefits to members.

Chief Appellate Judge Gary Witt said the state gave “shifting reasons” for cutting the union off from funds, including a rules change that would deny the union status as an association because it engaged in collective bargaining on behalf of members.

“The practical result of the rule is to give OA an unfair advantage in the negotiations by starving the Labor union for dues funding during the contract negotiations process,” Witt wrote.

Witt found the state’s actions violated the “fundamental right” to collective bargaining, guaranteed by the Missouri Constitution, and freedom of speech and association rights protected by the state and federal constitutions.

“Employees, in the public or private sector, have a right to organize together and present their demands,” said Chris Grant, the attorney who represented the corrections workers. “It was so great to see just a plain and very sharp statement to that effect.”

The action to limit funding for the corrections officers’ union came at a time when the state was appealing a $113.7 million judgment for unpaid overtime for more than 1,000 employees of the Department of Corrections. The union sponsored the lawsuit, which ultimately resulted in a state payout of $49.5 million in back pay and a promise of $54 million in future compensation.

The question before the court, Witt wrote, was whether the state was justified in its decision to stop withholding dues. When the state told the union the deductions would stop, it cited the failure to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, Witt wrote.

Every reason given, other than an intent to block the union from dues because it lacked a Labor agreement, was “pretextual” and thought up after the decision was made, Witt wrote.

“The trial court found that OA has provided shifting reasons for discontinuing MOCOA’s dues deduction,” Witt wrote. “As discussed previously, OA only provided one reason when it initially discontinued payroll deduction in December 2019, however new and different justifications have emerged throughout the course of this litigation.

Two other unions have also had payroll deductions ended – the Service Employees International Union, which represents probation and parole employees and patient care professionals in the corrections and mental health departments, and the Missouri Veterans Commission, and Communications Workers of America, which represents employees in the Social Services and Health and Senior Services departments.

“The record evidence shows the rule was targeted toward public sector unions,” Grant said. “This followed an approach by OA to make bargaining as difficult as possible for the unions.”

(Information from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Missouri Independent)



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