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Bid to bar some negotiations with unions goes to state House

by John Moritz | March 17, 2021 at 6:57 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

Legislation that would bar state agencies, colleges and public schools from negotiating with unions was sent to the House on Tuesday, setting the bill up for a potential final vote before the Senate must concur with amendments.

The House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor voted to pass Senate Bill 341, by Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, after a brief debate that included opposition from unions and the Arkansas Education Association.

The legislation would prohibit collective bargaining by public employees, though the bill includes specific carve-outs for police, firefighters and certain transit workers.

Ballinger said the bill also would exempt cities and counties, saying they should be allowed to "make bad choices" if they want to negotiate with unions.

"This doesn't prohibit [public employees] from unionizing," Ballinger said. "It just prohibits state actors from negotiating with them through a collective-bargaining agreement."

The bill would require covered entities to fire workers who strike or take part in picket lines.

Ballinger specifically pointed to a strike by Little Rock teachers in 2019 over the state's decision to end collective bargaining with the district's teachers union after more than 50 years.

That decision left the state without any active bargaining agreements between teachers unions and school districts. SB341 would prevent any future bargaining agreements.

Tracey-Ann Nelson, the executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, testified Tuesday that SB341 "directly targets our educators."

"Already in this state we have limited access to bargaining," Nelson said, adding later, "Arkansas educators have been meeting what's been asked of them for several years now and deserve to be treated as professionals. They deserve the same rights as other esteemed public employees and the same opportunity to have their voices heard."

While the bill attracted opposition from Democrats in the Senate, there was little debate Tuesday of House committee members, most of whom are Republicans.

During a previous hearing on the bill, representatives of the AFL-CIO and Arkansas Professional Firefighters Association also spoke against the bill, despite the latter's specific exemptions. Police unions have not weighed in publicly.

If SB341 passes the House, it must return to the Senate for approval of House amendments. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has yet to state an opinion on the bill.

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