Agree to disagree

School issues make up half of state’s labor complaints

Issues affecting public school districts account for about half of the work done by the Michigan Bureau of Employment Relations, including hearings on unfair labor practice complaints and fact finding by mediators.

"School issues seem to be more prevalent because the labor situation in school districts is that they usually can’t settle it on their own," says Ruthanne Okun, director of the MBER. "We also see a lot coming from municipalities, because they’re facing the same legacy issues as schools."

Legacy issues, Okun says, include salary, health insurance and retirement costs.

A sub-agency of the cabinet-level Department of Consumer and Industry Services, the MBER handles two specific items that are commonplace among schools, especially those experiencing contract negotiation difficulties. The first is what is known as an unfair labor practice complaint, usually pertaining to activities of one or both sides during bargaining, the second a fact finding process that applies directly to the contract in question.

The Michigan Public Employment Relations Act was passed in 1947, marking the first time public sector employees, such as teachers, were allowed to organize. Modeled after the National Labor Relations Act, PERA issues are decided by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. Both the state and federal laws allow for both sides to file unfair labor practice charges.

Historically, labor complaints have been associated closely with employees and unions, although that tide could be shifting.

"We typically receive between 300 and 400 ULP complaints per year," Okun said. "It definitely seems as though school boards are filing more often because of their financial situations. They are the ones looking for cost reductions and have ultimate responsibility for how the money is spent."

ULPs have been filed by both sides in Holland, where a contract fight has garnered statewide attention.

According to the Holland Sentinel, both the school board and teachers union have filed multiple complaints against the other, as negotiations focus primarily on containing health insurance costs. The decision, however, for a school board to take such a step against its employees is not taken lightly.

"When we first started this whole process, we were warned by our attorney that we would see this happen," Frank Garcia, superintendent for Holland Public Schools told Michigan Education Report, "We were hesitant to follow suit, but some things that occurred were completely out of line."

The Holland Sentinel reported that the district filed one ULP against the union because of a press conference the union held on the steps of city hall.

"They made known a proposal they were going to bring to the negotiating table the following night," Garcia said. "We felt that was a breach of an agreement not to negotiate in public."

The Sentinel also reported the district filed a ULP over a union proposal the district felt would have increased costs, something known as "regressive bargaining."

The Holland Education Association filed ULPs of its own against the school district, based on a letter the school board sent to individual teachers that outlined contract issues, and over a claim that the union did not receive financial information it had requested.

"I’m not sure what the trend is around the state with school boards doing this," Garcia said. "I know our board hesitated. We were very cautious not to jump at the first opportunity."

The issues over which a ULP can be filed are sometimes confusing. Lakeview Public Schools, in metro Detroit, declared an impasse in contract negotiations and instituted a new health insurance plan, also giving teachers a raise, which in turn prompted the union to file a ULP. In denying an injunction to stop the new insurance plan from being instituted, a Macomb County Circuit Court judge said the union had failed to show it was negatively affected by what the district had implemented, meaning a pay raise is generally not considered a negative thing. The issue, however, is that the pay raise was given outside the process of collective bargaining.

"I’ve been here eight years and I’ve never seen a decision that would end up taking money away that had already been paid," Okun said about the Lakeview situation. "The decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, so they should be practical for both parties."

Aside from the labor complaints, MERC also oversees requests for fact finding and mediation, wherein the school board and teachers union agree to present their cases to a neutral third party. This occurs after both sides agree that contract talks have reached an impasse.

"We’re seeing this more and more," Okun said. "Our hope is to place the sides back in a position whereby an unfair labor practice never would have occurred."