JEFFERSON CITY — Overturning a 60-year legal precedent, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that teachers and other public employees have a constitutional right to engage in collective bargaining with their government employers.
Although governments aren’t bound to reach work agreements with labor unions, once they do, they cannot simply back out of the contracts, the Supreme Court said.
The court’s 5-2 ruling overturned a 1947 Supreme Court decision that had construed a constitutional right to collective bargaining to apply only to private-sector employees. The court, by a unanimous decision, also overturned a 1982 decision that governments were free to disregard agreements made with employee unions.
The decision came in a labor dispute involving the Independence School District. But representatives for teachers unions and school boards agreed it will have much broader implications.
Missouri has 68,500 teachers in 524 public school districts who could more effectively band together in unions to negotiate salaries, benefits and workplace rights with local school boards. All told, Missouri has more than 390,000 public-sector employees to whom the ruling could grant expanded collective bargaining powers, according to figures from the Department of Economic Development.
The president of the Missouri National Education Association, which represents about 33,000 teachers and school employees, praised the ruling as a “historic decision.”
“What this decision does, basically, is lift the ban on collective bargaining for public employees,” said Greg Jung, a fifth-grade teacher on leave from the Ritenour School District to serve as president of the union. “We believe it will result in a better school environment for our children.”
Some school administrators, however, fear collective bargaining could drive up costs for salaries and benefits, potentially leaving less money for the classroom.
“This ruling has the potential to have drastic and expensive consequences for school districts and other public entities,” said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for Missouri School Boards’ Association.
Republican Gov. Matt Blunt decried it as “a terrible ruling” and a “reckless decision” that could force cities and school districts to raise taxes and could open the door to the threat of strikes by public-sector employees.
“This is yet another example of judicial activism, where a court’s action oversteps the bounds of prudent constitutional interpretation,” Blunt said in a written statement.
The 1945 Missouri Constitution, under a heading of “organized labor and collective bargaining,” states: “That employees shall have the right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”
In a 1947 case, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that provision “can only be construed to apply to employees in the private sector.”
But Chief Justice Michael Wolff, writing for the majority, specifically overruled that decision Tuesday, saying it contradicted the plain language of the constitution.
“‘Employees’ plainly means employees,” Wolff wrote. “There is no adjective; there are no words that limit ’employees’ to private sector employees.”
Joining Wolff were judges Laura Denvir Stith, Richard Teitelman, Mary Russell and Ronnie White — all appointed by Democratic governors.
Judges William Ray Price Jr. and Stephen Limbaugh Jr. — both appointed by Republican governors — dissented in overturning the 1947 precedent, though they agreed the Independence School District took inappropriate actions in 2002 in dealing with its employee associations.
They also agreed that a 1982 decision allowing governmental bodies to negate labor agreements anytime they desire to do so should be overruled.
Price cast doubt on whether the majority decision will have the far-reaching consequences envisioned by public officials and unions. He said it does not define what is meant by collective bargaining.
Most school districts already meet with teachers’ associations on a limited basis, primarily about salaries, said Duane Martin, an attorney for the Independence district and a part of the Doster Mickes James Ullom Benson & Guest LLC law firm, which represents 318 Missouri school districts.
The Supreme Court ruling will likely expand the scope of those negotiations, both in the topics discussed and the manner in which school officials negotiate, Martin said.