A rally hosted by Nebraska Association of Public Employees in front of the Lincoln capitol building.
The Nebraska Association of Public Employees agreed its largest ever pay increase in early February.

In meetings ahead of the union-negotiated record pay increase for Nebraska state employees, Brandon Brown, who works at the Nebraska Department of Revenue as a revenue senior agent, felt confident that the deal would pass.

The agreed-upon contract, negotiated by the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, the union for government employees in Nebraska, did not fully guarantee all of the desires sought by union members when it came time to renegotiate the deal at the end of 2022. Regardless, when it came time to ratify the deal, each bargaining unit collectively approved. All but one voted at least 90% in favor of the new contract.

“We had a good idea that it was going to pass and fairly easily. It was hard to deny that it was the best contract in history,” Brown said. “Once I found out for sure, it was a validation of what we had worked for.”

For Brown, the most recent success is a sharp turn from the situation in Nebraska public labor in 2018, which Brown personally described as the union’s low point in his account of events. In 2018, the NAPE lost around 500 members, according to Brown. Membership dropped to between 9 to 15% of the total labor force.

As Brown noted, the power of a union is based on the representation of its members, thus leaving the NAPE in a tough spot in 2018. Fast forward to 2023, and the NAPE stands at over 2,000 members, the highest level in 25 years. In four years, union membership has more than doubled. This growth in membership made the contract victory possible.

Despite 2022 in particular being an important year for national labor organizing, the success of the NAPE can be primarily attributed to the expansion of outreach and organizing campaigns in the union, according to Justin Hubly, executive director of the NAPE.

“We’ve embarked on a pretty heavy organizing campaign across the state to represent over 8,000 state employees,” Hubly said. “For many years, they’ve been underrepresented. We had a weak union that really wasn’t very involved and didn’t have many members. So there’s been a boots-on-the-ground campaign in all 93 counties.”

Brown echoed these sentiments. When he first began working for the state in 2015 in Norfolk, there was little organizing being done. The situation was non-existent outside the two major city centers and also pretty poor within them, according to Brown.

When he moved to Lincoln for work in 2018, Brown attended his first union meeting but was unconvinced by the operation. Nevertheless, he got involved, and the similar intervention by other coworkers eventually began to build the union, including outreach outside the main city centers.

The most important part of organizing, according to Brown, was outreach and listening to the concerns of fellow workers. On top of that, he emphasized the importance of not shutting people out of the union, for example shutting out conservatives or liberals because of their political affiliation.

“People who want higher wages are from every political spectrum,” Brown said. “They all want higher wages.”

For Hubly, the pandemic also served an important catalyst for convincing Nebraska state workers to organize. But the workers’ feeling that they were not properly treated, according to Hubly, predates the pandemic significantly.

In a press release announcing the new contract, Governor Jim Pillen said the lag between public and private sector pay was due to “high inflation due to policies in Washington.” 

“This agreement helps lessen that impact on our state teammates by bringing wages to a point that matches the market rate,” Pillen said in the statement. “We have a great team here at the State, and this agreement shows that we appreciate the incredible work they do for the people of Nebraska.” 

While it is true that the new contract accounts for inflation, Hubly noted that the lag between private and public sector pay predates both the pandemic and recent inflation concerns.

“The labor shortage in state government well predates the pandemic. It comes from a systemic, really since 2005, the Dave Heineman administration not investing in state employees,” Hubly said. “The pay fell behind the private sector. It’s always been behind, but it fell exceptionally behind the private sector.”

Both Brown and Hubly said they hope the recent success serves to stimulate further growth in union membership. Brown said he hopes that come the next contract, the union may be able to negotiate for benefits that had to be removed in initial demands.

“Once I found out it had actually gone through, I felt it was a way to springboard us into the next thing,” Brown said. “Look, we got you this big contract. Is it everything that we wanted? No. But now that you see we can do these things, the only way for us to get the things that you want, and maybe we don’t know what you want, we don’t know what everybody wants. But you have to join and get involved for us to do that.”

Right now, the primary concern in the union is wages. However, given sufficient growth, Brown said that in the future, the union may negotiate for other benefits. He mentioned sick leave and paid time off as potential areas for growth. Regardless, what must come first, for both Brown and Hubly, is further growth and involvement within the union itself.