Chief Justice Michael A. Wolff
Justice William Ray Price
JEFFERSON CITY -- The Missouri Supreme Court has overturned a 60-year precedent that had prevented public employees from collectively bargaining with the state. The Court decided, by a 5-2 margin, to reverse and remand a trial court ruling in Independence NEA and others v. Independence School District (SC87890) against the NEA and unions representing transport workers and custodians. Missouri's GOP Governor Matt Blunt quickly slammed yesterday's ruling in a press release as "yet another example of judicial activism, where a court's action oversteps the bounds of prudent Constitutional interpretation." The Supreme Court's ruling yesterday overturned a 1947 precedent in public-sector wage setting. That ruling said a section of the Missouri constitution giving employees the right to bargain collectively did not apply to public employees. The Supreme Court yesterday disagreed. That section of the constitution "applies to 'employees', regardless of .... private or public sector," wrote Chief Justice Michael A. Wolff. The opinion referred to the 1947 precedent as "purportedly incorrect." Wolff also wrote that "nothing in this constitutional provision requires public employers to reach agreements with their employee associations." But the Governor called the opinion a "reckless decision (that) could force cities and school districts to raise taxes and subject Missourians to the threat of strikes by critical public sector employees." He added that he would "ensure that appropriation authority remains in the hands of the legislature ... not judges seeking to legislate from the bench." School boards and government entities told the Supreme Court they feared that allowing public-sector workers to bargain collectively will push wages and other costs higher. Missouri employs almost 70,000 teachers and around 400,000 other workers. The Missouri School Boards Association and the Missouri Municipal League argued in an amicus curiae briefing that the 1947 precedent could only be altered "by the legislative process." The Supreme Court therefore had no reason "to upset the precedent," the brief added. Changing the law now would have drastic, expensive and negative repercussions on ... school districts, state agencies and municipalities such as counties, cities, fire districts, water districts, libraries and all other Missouri public entities," the brief concluded. In a partial dissenting opinion, Justice William Ray Price wrote that the wage-negotiation procedures the precedent established functioned effectively even in the present controversy. "It seems less harm would result from leaving this long-standing procedure in place than from giving public employees a new constitutional right to 'collective bargaining' that the majority does not define," Justice Price concluded.