(With updates from the state response, toward bottom)
SALEM, Ohio — The union that represents corrections staff at Ohio’s prison farms is suing the state and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for an injunction against closing and selling the state’s prison farms.
The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, which represents 8,600 employees within the DRC and 56 within the prison farms, filed a motion for a temporary restraining order May 5, in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas.
In the lawsuit, the union argues its collective bargaining rights were not met, and the union was not given appropriate notice of the decision to close and sell, nor the opportunity to negotiate.
The union also argues that selling the cattle and land now will damage any future potential for negotiation.
“This is clearly an end run around the union’s collective bargaining agreement. But it also goes against common human decency,” said union president Chris Mabe, in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
The DRC announced its intent to sell the prison farms April 12, saying the funds would be better spent on programming and training within prison walls. The prison farms currently provide food for the Ohio prisons system, job training opportunities and food for the Ohio Association of Foodbanks.
Out to bid
According to the lawsuit, public bids have already been requested for auctioneer services, and the first sale of dairy cattle is suggested to be held May 24, involving dairy cattle from the Pickaway Correctional Institution.
Two of the state farms, located in Marion and London, Ohio, were in the final stages of building new cattle barns and a new dairy parlor when the decision to close and sell all farms was announced. About $9 million worth of farm improvements were being finished.
Rick Savors, media relations manager with the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, told Farm and Dairy those projects were nearly finished, but that ag-specific equipment, such as cow stalls, would not be installed due to the pending closure. He said the state will look at ways it can repurpose the facilities that were completed.
The abandoned project has been a point of concern for the union, and various farmers who don’t understand why the state would build new dairy barns, and a new dairy parlor, but not use them.
The union estimates the new barns would have increased meat and dairy production about three times above the current amount.
“Something is not adding up here,” Mabe said.
Attorneys for the state filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit May 9, arguing the common pleas court lacks the jurisdictional powers to issue an injunction, and that the union has not met the requirements for injunction.
The state claims the court is “patently and unambiguously without jurisdiction” to enter “any type of injunctive relief.”
The state also claims that collective bargaining rights only ensure the union the opportunity “to discuss” a planned closure with the employer — not the right to bargain over the decision to close.
And the state says that the union has failed to demonstrate “irreparable harm,” arguing that the sale of livestock and farm equipment could later be re-purchased, if required by law.
“If the state of Ohio is ultimately found to not have the authority to close various farms, it can repurchase cattle and other implements necessary to conduct prison farm operations,” according to the state.
Cattle versus land
The state points out that the sale of the farmland itself will require an action of the General Assembly, which, if approved, would not become effective until 90 days after being signed by the governor.
At the same time, public bid documents show that the corrections department intends to sell most of its dairy cows by June 9. Without cows, the prison farms would presumably be done producing milk.
Should the state sell its livestock and equipment now, and later be required to repurchase those items and animals, it’s unclear what effect the change would have on the herd genetics, herd production, animal welfare and farm profitability.
Research shows that cow herds that are moved to new environments will likely produce less milk the first few days, and be susceptible to shipping stress — but eventually will adapt.
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