Nebraska prison workers, seeking longevity raises, again try to switch unions

LINCOLN — State prison and security workers are trying again to switch labor unions in hopes of addressing a longtime gripe: no raises for years of service.

The last effort to switch unions, in 2017, was nullified by a technicality — the request to hold a union election was made too late.

The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents several local law enforcement agencies across the state, recently refiled a request with the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations to represent the 1,600 security workers in state prisons, regional centers, youth rehabilitation centers and the State Capitol.

Workers must approve the change. An election by mail has not yet been set but could be held as early as next month. If approved, FOP Lodge 88 would be able to represent the workers in negotiations on a new two-year labor contract. Those talks begin in September.

Michael Chipman, a caseworker at the Community Corrections Center-Omaha, said corrections officers and other security workers believe that they will be better represented by a union that works specifically with law enforcement employees, rather than one that represents state employees of all kinds.

FOP lodges represent sheriff’s deputies in both Douglas and Lancaster Counties, as well as other police and sheriff’s workers across the state.

Currently, the state corrections employees and security workers are represented by the Nebraska Association of Public Employees of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (NAPE/AFSCME), the state’s largest public employee union, negotiating for about 10,000 state workers.

Chipman said the top priority of FOP Lodge 88 would be to obtain yearly raises for longevity. That, he said, would especially help cut into high rates of turnover among corrections officers.

“We get nothing past cost-of-living increases,” Chipman said. “We need to retain our staff.”

John Antonich, the executive director of NAPE/AFSCME, said his organization will not contest the setting of an election. But, he said, workers need to know that the FOP would face the same obstacles as his union in obtaining better wages.

“There’s no way the FOP is going to do all the things they’re promising,” Antonich said.

High turnover among security staff has plagued the state prison system, and despite some efforts to raise wages and benefits, turnover among such staff rose to 34 percent last year. A recent World-Herald story  detailed how state corrections workers are leaving for better-paying posts at county jails in Sarpy and Lancaster Counties, where “step raises” for longevity are provided.

Staffing problems also have been given partial blame for recent disturbances at state prisons, as well as an increase in assaults on staff.

State employees used to receive wage increases for longevity but bargained that away years ago. They have tried to regain raises for experience but have been unsuccessful.

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