When the Ogden School District refused to participate in collective bargaining and asked all teachers to sign a contract or resign by July 20, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, were prompted to look at banning the practice in Utah.
The two lawmakers head the committee overseeing public education funding. Presumably their motivation is to aid other districts in following Ogden's lead. But the ensuing debate last July inspired discussion on what is left of worker's rights in Utah.
Collective bargaining the label given to the process of an employer and a union negotiating work contracts for employees is optional in Utah. An employer is not required to work with a union, as the Ogden district demonstrated, and a worker cannot be required to join a union as a condition of employment.
That makes the proposed banning of the practice an assault on the freedom of association, said Patty Rich, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
Former Salt Lake City mayor Ted Wilson was supportive of employees organizing and the city council at the time approved contract negotiations with the AFSCME.
The group recently won rights to "meet and confer" with Salt Lake County over contracts, which Rich described as a "watered-down" version of collective bargaining. It only applies to employees of the "trades unit," which Rich said is mostly "blue-collar."
The employees choose to support the association, and the city and county choose to negotiate with it. Interference with it would constitute interference in a democratic political process, Rich said.
But the bigger problem is the attack on workers' rights to speak with a unified voice, she added.
"It's a good process that makes everyone equal at the table. Everyone is accountable on both sides," Rich said. "This is trying to silence the voice of the working class."
As chair of the committee funding public education, it is possible Stephenson and Wright only had teachers unions in mind when they proposed banning the practice. That doesn't matter, Rich said.
"An attack on teachers is an attack on all public employees," she added. "It doesn't matter if it's teachers or police officers or sanitation truck drivers."
Michael Kovacs, assistant manager for Park City Municipal Corporation, said none of the city's employees he is aware of belong to a union or similar association. The city does not work with any when writing employment contracts.
But he, former mayor Brad Olch and former council members Tina Lewis Bob Wells recall there was a proposal to organize in the 1980s. None of the three could remember the details, but agreed Public Works Department employees desired to organize, but it did not occur.
Brian Bellamy, human resources director for Summit County, said no employee he is aware of belongs to a union and the county negotiates with none.
"(The county) being a creature of the state, it doesn't do them any good," he said. "They have the Utah Public Employees Association, but they don't have the right to strike it's just an employee association, they can't do anything."
Still, neither Summit County Republican Party Chair Henry Glasheen nor Summit County Democratic Party Chair Glenn Wright support the legislature banning the practice.
"We'd be the first state to go from it being optional to it not optional an outright ban is not necessary," Glasheen said.
The only way a ban would affect Summit County employees is if the Park City School District ended collective bargaining.
And while the school district is struggling with budget issues, fighting the teacher's union here doesn't make sense, he said.
"They've got teachers that have been here years and years," he added. "All sides need to come to the table with the idea that they need to negotiate."
Wright said collective bargaining is essential to the middle-class standard of living. The practice has had incredible past success in moving Americans out of poverty.
Public employees need someone to stand up for their point of view, he added.
"They don't get to dictate what they're going to get; it's all about negotiations but public employees have a right to be represented."
Wright said he would encourage anyone who cares about the plight of the middle class to fight a ban if it is proposed by the Utah Legislature this winter.
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees