Does it make a difference? Granting public employees the right to collectively bargain: Independence-National Education Ass'n v. Independence School District.

AuthorStogsdill, Amanda

    In Independence-National Education Ass'n v. Independence School District, the Missouri Supreme Court granted public employees the right to collectively bargain. This holding breathed new life into an argument more than sixty years old: that the Missouri Constitution grants both public and private sector employees the right to collectively bargain. However, a close reading of this seemingly landmark case shows that Missouri's highest court smothered the numerous possibilities afforded by this holding before they could be tested by both public employers and public employees. This Note will argue that the Missouri Supreme Court's holding was unnecessary and affords no new rights to employees, that the Court's abrogation of the nondelegation doctrine is undermined by the Court's own reliance on the doctrine, and that public employers may still be able to unilaterally change the terms of a collectively bargained for employment agreement.


    For more than twenty years before the instant dispute arose, the Independence School District ("District") near Kansas City, Missouri, held discussions regarding salaries and working conditions with a group representing the District's teachers and paraprofessionals known as the Independence-National Education Association (INEA). (2) Pursuant to Missouri's Public Sector Labor Law (hereinafter "Public Labor Law"), (3) the INEA was certified as the exclusive collective bargaining representative of the paraprofessionals of the District. (4) While the INEA was not the certified collective bargaining representative of the District's teachers (due to the exclusion of Missouri's public school teachers from portions of the Public Labor Law (5)), the group was still recognized by the District and discussions were held on the teacher's behalf through a "discussion procedure" adopted by the District. (6)

    During this time, the District also separately met and held discussions about salaries and working conditions with two other employee groups, one representing the District's custodial employees--the Independence-Educational Support Personnel (IESP)--and another representing the District's transportation employees--the Independence-Transportation Employees Association (ITEA). (7) Pursuant to the Public Labor Law, each of these organizations is certified as the exclusive collective bargaining representative of their respective employee groups. (8) After each employee organization met with representatives of the District to discuss proposals relating to salary and working conditions, the results of the discussions were included in memoranda of understanding which were subsequently approved by District representatives. (9)

    In April of 2002, the District adopted a "Collaborative Team Policy" that changed the terms of employment for each of the employee groups represented by the INEA, the IESP, and the ITEA. (10) This policy was unilaterally adopted by the District without meeting or conferring with the employee groups to discuss the adoption of the policy, (11) an action that conflicted with the memoranda of understanding then in effect with the IESP and the ITEA. (12) The new policy also rescinded the "discussion procedure" in place governing the representation and bargaining power of the INEA. (13)

    As a result, the INEA, ITEA, and the IESP brought suit in the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri, in March of 2003, alleging that the "Collaborative Team Policy" was not in compliance with the Public Labor Law because the policy did not allow each employee group to meet and confer separately with the District. (14) Further, the plaintiffs alleged that, in adopting the policy without meeting or conferring with the employee groups, the District unilaterally violated the memoranda of understanding previously in place with the ITEA and the IESP, as well as the "Discussion Procedure" in place with the INEA. (15)

    The District then filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, which was granted by the trial court. (16) As the basis for summary judgment, the court held that the "Collaborative Team Policy" did not violate the Public Labor Law and that the District was able to unilaterally rescind an existing agreement with any employee group without consequence. (17) The employee groups then appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri, arguing that the cases upon which the trial court based its decision were wrongly decided and that genuine issues of material fact existed, making the case inappropriate for summary judgment. (18) The Court of Appeals agreed that genuine issues of material fact existed and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. (19) However, the Court of Appeals refused to entertain the claim that the case law used by the trial court was erroneous, noting that the courts of appeal are "'constitutionally bound to follow the most recent controlling decision of the Missouri Supreme Court.'" (20)

    On remand, the Circuit Court of Jackson County tried the case on a stipulated factual record in which the District acknowledged that its actions in adopting the "Collaborative Team Policy" constituted a failure to bargain collectively with the respective employee groups. (21) The trial court agreed with this proposition and also held that the District unilaterally rescinded its agreements previously in place with the plaintiffs. (22) However, the court held that these actions were permitted under then-existing Missouri precedent, which forbade public employees from collectively bargaining with their employers and allowed any agreements made between public employees and the government to be changed at any time. (23)

    The employee groups then appealed directly to the Missouri Supreme Court, challenging the precedent on which the trial court based its holding. (24) The Missouri Supreme Court agreed that the then-existing case law should be overturned and held that all Missouri employees, both public and private, have the right to collectively bargain. (25) Further, the court held that agreements made between employees and public employers were not subject to unilateral rescission by the employer. (26)


    In 1945, Missouri's voters approved the state's current constitution, including article I, section 29 (hereinafter "section 29") which ensures "[t]hat employees shall have the right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing." (27) While this section of the constitution was ensnared in considerable debate, (28) voters eventually passed this rather facially uncomplicated provision. However, at this time the nondelegation doctrine (29) was thriving and controversy surrounded who this bare bones constitutional provision applied to and what, exactly, was meant by the term "collective bargaining."

    Just two years after the passage of section 29, the Missouri Supreme Court had its first opportunity to interpret the meaning of this provision in City of Springfield v. Clouse. (30) In Clouse, the Missouri Supreme Court considered a declaratory judgment action brought by the city of Springfield, Missouri, against representatives and officers of labor unions representing the city's employees. (31) In a factual scenario that would later repeat itself many times over, the city claimed that section 29 only applied to the private sector, while the members of the labor unions contended that the provision applied "with equal force" to private and public employees. (32) The Missouri Supreme Court found for the city, holding that section 29 could only have been intended to apply to collective bargaining in the private sector. (33)

    The basis for the court's holding was that under the existing nondelegation framework, allowing public employees to collectively bargain resulted in the "bargain[ing] away" of legislative discretion. (34) However, the court noted that collective bargaining, as secured by section 29, was significantly different from the right to speak freely and to peaceably assemble, as secured by the United States Constitution and article I, sections 8 and 9 of the Missouri Constitution. (35) The Missouri Supreme Court encouraged public employees to exercise such free speech and assembly rights in order to voice their grievances and desires to their employer, as citizens petitioning the government for the reformation of administrative rules, ordinances, or statutes. (36)

    Notably, however, the Missouri Supreme Court made no attempt to define the parameters of collective bargaining or to establish the seemingly fine line where free speech and peaceable assembly end and collective bargaining begins. (37) Nonetheless, the court did define the purpose of collective bargaining to be reaching binding employment contracts between the employer and the union representing the employees. (38) In light of the nondelegation doctrine, this purpose could not be served when public employment was at issue--allowing government entities to enter into binding contracts would be tantamount to an executive entity "bind[ing] itself or its successor to make or [to] continue any legislative act." (39) This refusal to conclusively define collective bargaining caused major confusion in courts throughout the state, a confusion that was exemplified in the number of cases brought under section 29 in the wake of Clouse.

    Eleven years after Clouse, the Missouri Supreme Court was called upon to decide how the rights afforded by section 29 were applicable when a city separates its public utilities from the rest of the city's government. In Glidewell v. Hughey, (40) the city of Springfield's Board of Public Utilities refused to enter into agreements with local labor unions. (41) The labor unions contended that the city had separated its Board of Utilities from the rest of the city's functions in such a way that the Board was a private...

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