COLUMBUS — Lawyers for the prison workers’ union and state officials met in court Thursday morning as the union fought to stop the closure of Ohio’s prison farms.
The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association filed paperwork last month seeking an emergency injunction to halt the sale of the prison’s cattle and land. A hearing was held Thursday in Magistrate Elizabeth Watters’ courtroom in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court.
Specifically, the union’s lawsuit accuses the state of attempting to “ignore and circumvent” the workers’ collective bargaining rights by announcing the plan to close the prison farms but refusing to discuss exactly how the employees who currently run the prison farm programs will be affected, union lawyer Sandra Bell said Thursday in opening arguments.
In many cases, the transition from farm operator to corrections officer would be a demotion, union chief of staff Kelly Phillips testified. Union leaders heard rumors as early as January that the farms would be closing, but prison leaders have refused to provide a rationale for closing the operations, and now want union leaders to sign agreements to move employees, still with no information, she said.
Also, by refusing to provide information requested by the union, such as farm financials, prison leaders are violating the union’s right to draft a proposal that would prevent the outsourcing of the prison system’s beef production, union research analyst Adam McKenzie testified.
The prison has already sold its dairy cows. If there is not an injunction to halt prison leaders from selling anything further, the union “fears the cost of enforcing an arbitration award will be too costly for the state budget” if an arbitrator ultimately decides that prison leaders have to continue or reinstate farm operations, Bell said.
Richard Coglianese, assistant section chief for employment law in the Ohio Attorney General’s office, described the union’s lawsuit as a “Don Quixote-like quest to tilt at a windmill.”
Prison leaders have management rights to close a program within the prison system — that is not an issue that is subject to arbitration, he argued. The argument is the base for a motion to dismiss the whole lawsuit, filed two weeks ago by the lawyers representing prison officials.
Further, the state has not yet closed any farm programs or sold any land, which would require approval by the Ohio General Assembly, Coglianese said.
No workers have been laid off — nor are layoffs planned — therefore prison leaders are not required to provide a rationale for layoffs, which means officials have not violated the collective bargaining agreement, he argued.
On the contrary, state officials have attempted to set up meetings with union leaders to negotiate new roles for the prison farm managers who will be displaced by the closure of the farm program, testified Kristen Rankin, deputy director of the Office of Collective Bargaining and the lone witness on the side of the state officials.
In short, union leaders argue that a layoff rationale and associated information about the program being closed is required before union members can negotiate new contracts for displaced employees; state leaders argue that contract negotiations for displaced employees can occur instead of the notification procedure required in the case of a layoff.
The magistrate requested both sides file their closing arguments by June 30. It is unclear how soon after she will issue a ruling.
Reach Audrey Ingram can be reached at 740-852-1616, ext. 1615 or via Twitter @Audrey.MP.