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Thursday, June 28, 2007


In a landmark decision that overturns a 60-year-old precedent, the Missouri Supreme Court on May 29 ruled 5-2 that the state constitution grants collective bargaining rights to government employees. In the same ruling, the court voted 7-0 to reverse another long-standing precedent that allowed governments that voluntarily entered into labor agreements with employees to unilaterally break them at any time.

Article I, Section 29 of the Missouri Constitution says: “That employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” Although the provision contains no exemption for public sector employees, the Supreme Court created one in the 1947 case City of Springfield v. Clouse.

In the current case, the majority said the 1947 court erred in establishing an exemption for public employees where none exists in the text. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Michael Wolff wrote: “‘Employees’ plainly means employees. There is no adjective; there are no words that limit “employees” to private sector employees. The meaning of section 29 is clear and there is, accordingly, no authority for this Court to read into the Constitution words that are not there.” Although the constitution gives government workers the right to bargaining collectively, their employers are under no obligation to agree to terms and state law still prohibits such workers from striking, Wolff wrote.

Dissenting from the majority’s decision to overturn Clouse, Judges William Ray Price Jr. and Stephen Limbaugh Jr. said the 1947 ruling has been “substantially undercut” by subsequent rulings and legislative actions. As a result, they said reversing Clouse will have little practical impact.

The current case was brought by the Independence National Education Association and other labor groups representing support staff at the Independence School District. The district voluntarily entered into labor agreements with the groups but later unilaterally changed the terms. In 1982, the court ruled in Sumpter v. City of Moberly that a public employer was free to disregard agreements with its employee unions. With the current case, the court unanimously reversed that precedent.

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