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Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act of 2007

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I see my friend and colleague, Senator Enzi. I will now make a comment about the pending legislation. I thought we did have some good discussion and debate on yesterday. A number of important issues were raised. I will try this morning at least to respond to some of those matters to clear up what I think are some questions we had. Obviously, we are interested in moving this process forward, considering amendments, and getting to the Senate's business.

Once again, I will mention two organizations that support our Public Safety Employee Cooperation Act: the International Association of Firefighters and the Union of Police Associations. We pointed out this week is set aside in our Nation, and has been set aside since 1962, to give special honor to our men and women in the police organizations who have lost their lives in the line of duty. It is a very special, solemn ceremony in which they participate. We are mindful of their service every day but especially this week. We are grateful for their strong support for this legislation. They have studied it, analyzed it, looked into it, and support it.

The National Association of Police Organizations and a great many other organizations have supported this legislation--our first responders. These are the organizations that speak for firefighters, speak for police officers, speak for the first responders.

Yesterday we had a good debate about the bill. I think we are off to a good start. I would like to take some time today to set the record straight as to what the bill does do and what the bill does not do. Fundamentally, this bill is about choice, who should make the choice whether public safety workers get a union--the Federal Government, State government, or the workers themselves.

Right now we have a system where the Government makes the choice--26 States give workers the ability to form a union if they want one; 24 States deny workers that option. These 24 State governments think they know better than the workers themselves what is best.

I disagree. Our public safety officers are on the front lines every day fighting fires, stopping crimes, saving lives. They know best how to protect the public. They know best how to keep safe on the job. They know best whether they need a union to represent their interests.

The Cooperation Act gives this choice to the workers. It says the States have to provide a path that workers can use if they decide they want a union. If the workers do not want a union, fine, they do not have to walk down that path. But the State has to make it available and let the workers choose, just as it is with the right to vote. Individuals do not have to vote, but they have the right to vote. This is the State making that judgment. We recognize that as a fundamental right there and here.

Under current law, States make the judgment decision. With the Alexander amendment it will allow the States to make the judgment and decision. Under the Corker amendment, that is it. Under our Cooperation Act it is the workers themselves who make the judgment--do they want it, don't they want it--and we abide by the outcome. That is a basic, fundamental difference.

It is not going to be hard for the States to build this path. All they have to do is provide for four core rights: No. 1, the right to form and join a union; No. 2, the right to sit down and talk at the table; No. 3, the right to sign a contract if both parties agree; and, No. 4, the right to go to a neutral third party when they have disputes.

They can make the judgment whether they want arbitration, whether they want mediation, whether they want fact finding. There are no requirements. They can make those judgments; they can make those decisions. They make the judgments.

Apart from these four things, all other details of the collective bargaining system are left up to the States. States have the flexibility to decide whether to exempt small communities. They decide how workers can select a union--through card check, elections, or both. Do we understand? The States make those judgments and decisions.

States can decide how workers and employers should resolve disputes--through arbitration, mediation, fact finding, or some other mechanism. If a State decides not to pass a law providing a framework for bargaining, or if the State law does not provide for the four core rights, the Federal labor relations authority will step in to ensure that workers have these rights. But that is only if the State refuses to act.

We heard a good deal of discussion about the role of this authority and how we do not understand what this is all about and how this is going to change federalism. It is very simple what this legislation does do and what it does not permit. Our first responders sacrifice so much for us each day, the least we owe them is the ability to choose for themselves whether they want a union. We owe them at least that much dignity and respect, and that is what the Cooperation Act provides.

I hope this explanation will ease the minds of many of my colleagues. I think there have been a lot of misconceptions about this bill floating around. I hope this explanation can alleviate some of those concerns. We heard a lot of talk yesterday about this bill imposing Washington's will on the States. Of course that is not true. I happen to think that unions are good for workers, but nothing in this bill imposes my opinion or the opinion of my colleagues on public safety officers. Under this bill, Congress does not make the decision whether public safety officers have a union. Instead, firefighters, police officers, have the choice. That is where the decision will be made.

Several amendments were filed yesterday that would give the State and local governments, the employers, the opportunity to opt out of the requirements of this bill. But these opt-out provisions actually block the rights of the first responders. They would allow the State and local governments to cut off public safety officers' rights. We should let police and firefighters decide whether they want to exercise their rights to have a union. That is what this bill would do.

Senator Alexander and Senator Enzi said people in their States are happy without unions. If that is true, then it is likely nothing will change. If those public safety officers believe their voices are being heard and their concerns are being addressed, then they will choose not to form unions. Nothing in this bill forces them to make a different choice.

Senator Alexander and Senator Enzi should put their assertions to the test and pass this legislation. If they are right, nothing will change. But if they are wrong, public safety officers in Tennessee and Wyoming will vote for unions and get a voice in the workplace.

We also heard that Washington was imposing a one-size-fits-all federal system on the States. This is another misconception. At every turn in drafting this legislation, Senator Gregg and I went out of our way to give States the flexibility to adopt a collective bargaining law that works for them. Under this bill, Congress will not tell Tennessee or Wyoming or any other State how to implement the law. States can choose how to comply.

As I mentioned, States only have to provide the most basic rights. Other than those basic rights, States have the flexibility to adopt the system that works best for them.

I would note that several of the amendments filed yesterday would take these basic choices away from the States and mandate a Federal rule on issues such as right to work or card check. That is not what this bill should be about. The flexibility for States is important as long as the core rights are there.

States also have the flexibility to completely control costs under this bill. This control means there is no risk of unfunded mandates. My colleagues across the aisle love to talk about charges of unfunded mandates, but it simply does not fit.

This bill comes with no--I repeat no--price tag. Nothing in this bill tells the State and local governments to spend any money. Nothing says they have to raise wages. Nothing says they have to improve benefits or shift money

from local priorities into public safety. Governments are free to write their own contracts. At the bargaining table, State and local governments are free to offer bargaining proposals that are consistent with their local fiscal needs. They cannot be forced to agree to any terms they do not want or cannot afford.

In addition to being able to protect their interests at the bargaining table, State and local governments can also safeguard their financial interests through the legislative process. The bill explicitly allows State and local legislative bodies to retain the right to approve or disapprove funding for a contract by requiring an agreement be presented to a legislative body as part of the process for approving such contract or memorandum of understanding.

That simply means elected Representatives have the final say on spending. Do we understand that? The bill explicitly allows the State and local legislative bodies to retain the right to approve or disapprove funding for a contract by requiring an agreement ``be presented to a legislative body as part of the process for approving such contract or memoranda of understanding.'' Elected Representatives have the final say on spending.

Remember also that under this bill, public safety officers have no right to strike and no requirement of binding arbitration. That means no one can force a contract on a State and local government under this bill.

The other side's additional argument that there will be costs associated with just implementing any new State law is a red herring. The costs will be minimal. All State and local governments already have human resource departments in place. In addition, collective bargaining often creates new efficiencies that actually save money. In Miami, FL, the local firefighter union worked with the community to reconfigure EMS services and ended up saving taxpayers a great deal of money.

On top of all these safeguards for State and local governments, we have adopted an additional safeguard for the States' smallest communities. In addition to the protections I have just outlined, the bill allows State governments to exempt these smaller communities if they want. If a town has fewer than 5,000 residents or employs fewer than 25 workers, the State can say: Our law does not apply to you.

You can see this bill is a reasonable way to extend the choice of whether to have a union for our Nation's public safety officers. We have taken extensive steps to protect State and local flexibility to ensure they will not be burdened by these procedures.

A final argument that we have heard about States rights yesterday was that this bill violates States rights under the Constitution. This argument is simply false. The bill has been carefully crafted to comply with the current Supreme Court cases on the ability of Congress to regulate State governments. Throughout our history, our Federal Government has set core labor standards, such as minimum wage and overtime rules, that apply also to State workers. Do we understand that? Minimum wage, overtime apply to State workers. They apply to them in Massachusetts. They apply in Tennessee.

Bargaining rights are no different. I do not think anyone in this Chamber would argue that the State government should not have to comply with the basic standards prohibiting them from discriminating against workers based on race or gender. The same is true for collective bargaining rights. Bargaining rights are civil rights too.

Moreover, there is a strong Federal interest in the performance of State and local first responders. We have an increasingly Federal approach to national security. We have created a Department of Homeland Security and appropriated $40 billion for that--$40 billion, for homeland security.

The last time I looked at the map, all the States fell within that criterion, in terms of being protected. In our post-Ð9/11 world, this national response to terrorism increasingly depends on coordination with State and local public safety officers. It is more appropriate than ever for the Federal Government to ensure that public safety officers are working as efficiently and as effectively as possible. By encouraging strong partnerships between public safety officers and the cities and States they serve, this bill advances the Government's interests in improving homeland security.

Finally, my colleagues have tried to scare even those States that have good, solid collective bargaining laws into believing that their laws are on the line. In truth, more than half of the States in the country will not be affected by this bill.

As I described a minute ago, the bill does not require that State laws have specific provisions, only that they provide the basic protections I outlined. The Federal Labor Relations Authority, which will make those determinations, is not some secret society. It is a longstanding Federal agency staffed by dedicated career servants and Presidential appointees who are confirmed by the Senate--not greatly different from the National Labor Relations Board, for example.

In summary, you can see that this bill is not the aggressive intrusion into State government that was portrayed yesterday.

In addition, I wish to address some of the other individual concerns raised about the bill that are misleading and misplaced.

First, this bill will not encourage strikes. In fact, this bill provides additional safeguards to prevent strikes. It specifically says that a public safety officer may not engage in a strike, work slowdown, or any action that will measurably disrupt the delivery of emergency services. There is no room for interpretation. That is an ironclad ban on any action that will impair public safety. This language specifically says that a public safety officer may not engage in a strike, work slowdown, or any other action that will measurably disrupt the delivery of emergency services. More importantly, it creates a mechanism for public safety officers and their employers to communicate and build strong bipartisanship that enhances cooperation, decreasing the likelihood of strikes.

It is an insult--it is an insult to public safety officers to suggest that they will strike. It has been decades since there has been a police or firefighters strike in this country. Police and firefighters in most States already have the right to bargain, and there has been no problem with strikes. These brave men and women take their duty to serve the public very seriously, so seriously they are willing to die for it. The suggestion that they would shirk their duty in order to argue over a contract dishonors them and dishonors their sacrifices.

Next, I wish to underscore that this bill will not harm communities that rely on volunteer firefighters. This legislation expressly applies only to employees, which means volunteers are excluded. Any suggestion that cities and towns are going to be forced to bargain with and possibly pay their volunteer firefighters is wrong. What is more, we included language supported by the National Volunteer Firefighter Council to ensure that professional firefighters can continue to volunteer in their off-duty hours. This language outlaws contract provisions that would prohibit an employee from engaging in part-time employment or volunteer activities during off-duty hours. That includes part-time or volunteer firefighting. Senator Enzi says that is not clear, but it seems pretty clear to me.

My colleagues across the aisle also attacked this bill yesterday as hypocritical because it is inconsistent with how our Federal Government treats its own workers. Again, this criticism is untrue and misleading. Federal workers have bargaining rights. They also have a say in their wages. The law allows them to petition the Government each year.

Federal law enforcement offices are an example of how well collective bargaining rights and public safety go together. Whether Congress should give Federal public safety officers the right to directly bargain over wages is an issue for another day. We do not need to resolve that question in order to do the right thing for the State and local offices.

We also heard complaints about the process that brought us to this point. Listening to the debate, you might think this bill was a new idea never explored or never debated. That again is simply false. This bill has been around for a long time. It was introduced in 1999, almost 10 years ago, by Senator DeWine, and then by Senator Gregg. It has also had strong bipartisan support.

My colleagues across the aisle would have us go through more hearings and debate before we act. We do not need more hearings. We have already had a hearing in the HELP Committee. In fact, we have marked this bill up twice, once in 2001 and once in 2003. We even voted on this bill before in 2001. Our Nation's first responders have waited long enough for the basic rights in this bill. We should not make them wait any longer. They do not make us wait when we need them. We should not have them wait any longer.

I yield the floor

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