The Michigan Association of School Boards has categorized union bargaining strategy in three stages: (1) the softening-up stage, (2) the near-impasse stage, and (3) the give-in-or-else stage. In each stage, a union employs increasing pressure on the school board to achieve the labor organization’s desired ends.
In the softening-up stage, which begins before the start of formal negotiations, unions frame the issues for their membership. Tactics include the following:
"an increase in the number of grievances, letters to the union membership indicating their wage ranking in the job market ... or even a letter requesting negotiations commence early due to the number of ‘serious issues’ needing to be addressed."
The object in this softening-up stage is to motivate the base of union membership to put their trust in the union’s bargaining team. The process resembles a primary election in the political arena, where office-seekers attempt to solidify the support of party loyalists prior to the bruising battle of the general election campaign.
After bargaining is underway, union tactics shift into a more confrontational mode, the near-impasse stage:
"Frequently employed strategies include union news releases indicating the board’s team is stalling, attacks on the integrity and competence of the board’s negotiating team, rumors and half-truths spread among union membership to leverage support for the union’s bargaining team, direct pleas to individual board members, phone calls to key people and groups within the community, a mass attendance at board meetings, or the filing of unfair labor practice charges."
In the near-impasse stage, unions often try to increase the pressure for concessions by enlisting the sympathies of the general public. It is largely for this reason that a union will work to bring to public attention the disputes at issue and cast the school board in as poor a light as possible. If a union can bring the public to its side, the political nature of public school management will work in the union’s favor.
James Gillette: "Unions do not necessarily represent the best interests of their rank-and-file members, nor do they act according to the wishes of their members. They will seek to personalize the collective bargaining, blaming the superintendent, chief spokesperson and oftentimes individual board members. One tactic is to use a ‘power study,’ whereby they research the personal backgrounds of board members, the superintendent and bargaining team members to find information that can be used in a negative fashion when things get difficult at the table."
During mediation on stalled contract talks in western Michigan between the Mona Shores school board and the local teachers union, the Muskegon Chronicle reported that union members wore slogan T-shirts and buttons and put signs in their car windows decrying the lack of a contract. The Chronicle reported:
"Kathleen Oakes, a UniServ director for the Michigan Education Association who represents union groups during negotiations, said she feels bad that school officials are getting defensive about the union’s actions, but the teachers only want a fair and equitable contract. ‘We want the general public involved, to understand what’s going on and to be concerned about how districts are spending money,’ Oakes said. ‘Quite often, when negotiations aren’t coming to a settlement, both sides feel the need to put pressure out there to get the other side to move. No one likes the outcome when things become contentious,’ she said. ‘Unfortunately, people take it as a personal attack against them. It’s not a personal attack on the school board. We just don’t agree.'"
If impasse occurs, or when it has become clear that the union has not managed to achieve the public support to push the school board to capitulate, the union often becomes desperate and moves to the give-in-or-else stage. Here the union’s options are somewhat limited. They may talk of a strike, but the realities of PERA concerning financial penalties make an actual walkout unlikely. At this point, a school board can expect that the intensity of the union’s activities will increase. The union may conduct a media campaign, file charges alleging an unfair labor practice or hold demonstrations.
Lynn Parrish: "At the point [an impasse is declared], there is a formula that goes into play, and all of a sudden there is a stream of unfair labor practice charges. They are bogus, of course, but that’s the game that the union plays."
Sandra Feeley Myrand: "A no-confidence vote is one of the strategies the MEA uses. The local union will take a no-confidence vote on the superintendent and hope that a vote of no confidence will split the board from the superintendent or the superintendent from his or her administrators."
James Gillette: "[Board members] must be 100 percent united on whatever parameters they establish for their bargaining team. A divided board will be an easy target for a union. [The union] will seek to pick them off one at a time and create disharmony in the community."
Richard Putvin on how to survive a recall effort: "Stay positive; don’t go negative; don’t try and run a fight-back campaign. Stick at the positives as to why you did it and for what reasons."
Lynn Parrish on the challenges of collective bargaining and what to expect from the union: "displays of anger, displays of pique, juvenile stuff, misinterpretation and then, worse yet, away from the table, ... mischaracterization in their memoranda and internal messages to their union rank-and-file [of] what the chief negotiator and other members of the team actually have to say. Character assassination that’s, you know, it’s all in the formula."
For example, as reported in The Macomb Daily, when the Lakeview public school board imposed contractual terms, "an estimated 200 teachers representing about a dozen school districts across Macomb County protested … in support of 182 teachers at Lakeview Public Schools who have been without a labor contract since last year." The situation can be tense, as illustrated by this quote from former MEA President Luigi Battaglieri:
"‘We have a school district in Lakeview which does not want to bargain fairly with teachers,’ Battaglieri said. ‘We have a majority on the board (of education) who are not interested in hearing the facts. They would rather spend money on lawyers to impose a contract. But in reality these teachers are being denied a fair and equitable contract.’ … ‘We have to live with their salaries,’ the union leader said. ‘This is 2005 — not the 1990s. They have forced members of our union to accept the insurance they want us to have, not the insurance we want to have. This could end up in the courts with litigation. But I have a stable of attorneys in Lansing who are ready to fight the fight.’"