(The Center Square) – New Hampshire's highest court has narrowly cleared Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of any wrongdoing in a recent dispute with the state's public employees union.
In a 3-2 ruling, the state Supreme Court rejected a finding of the Public Employees Labor Relations Board that Sununu had violated state labor laws by sending an email to state workers informing them about ongoing contractual negotiations prior to a ratification vote in 2019.
Two justices dissented, and Supreme Court Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald – Sununu's former attorney general – abstained from the deliberations. The tie-breaking vote was cast by MacDonald's replacement on the case, retired Superior Court Judge Gillian Abramson.
In its ruling, the PELRB determined that Sununu's email was "a direct presentation of the state’s bargaining position to the bargaining unit made in an effort to convince employees to pressure the unions to accept the state’s bargaining proposal, reject the fact-finder’s report, and reject any contrary recommendations from the unions."
But writing for the court's majority, Associate Justice Patrick Donovan said Sununu's email didn't include "elements of intimidation, coercion or misrepresentation" that would have constituted a violation of labor laws.
"Although the governor expressed his 'hope' that the unions would 'reconsider the many valuable benefits that the state's proposal offers to state employees,' his email did not expressly characterize the state's proposal as superior to the fact-finder's report, and it did not expressly urge employees to vote against the report," he wrote in the 20-page ruling.
But in a rare dissent, two justices argued that the PELRB was correct in its ruling that Sununu had included "misrepresentations" in the email sent to state workers ahead of the union's meeting.
Writing for the minority opinion, Senior Associate Justice Gary Hicks and Justice James Bassett argued that the email contained at least one misrepresentation. It was sent by Sununu to state workers about 90 minutes before a December 2019 union meeting to discuss the state's contractual offer on wages and benefits.
Another issue reviewed by the court was Sununu's decision not to bring a fact-finder’s report that made recommendations for resolving the labor dispute before the Executive Council for consideration. The court’s majority found that Sununu, who had rejected the report, wasn't required under state laws to put it before the council for a non-binding vote.
Sununu praised the ruling in a statement and said it "confirms what we already knew – that the state always followed the letter of the law when it came to state contracts and negotiations."
"While I always believed there were no unfair labor practices to which this appeal arose from, I am pleased the majority of the court agreed," Sununu said.
But the New Hampshire State Employees Association criticized the high court's ruling, saying it sets a bad precedent for resolving contractual labor disputes.
"This may negatively impact the ability of the state and its employees to reach an agreement on terms and conditions of employment going forward, and it goes against what the Legislature intended when it created the Public Employee Labor Relations Act," the union's statement read.