Posts Tagged Douglas County

Union Concessions Not So…Concessional

This morning, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers responded to the School Board’s thoughts on the state of contract negotiations. The response is notable, because it appears to walk back a number of concessions that the union had made in earlier negotiations.

The union’s justification, laid out in a letter to its membership (see below), is that since the Board wasn’t negotiating in good faith, it has the right to rescind these concessions pending either mediation, arbitration, confrontation, or litigation.

Particularly, it appears to renege on two issues that it had agreed to defer to to the courts: the matter of union heads being full-time employees on the the district payroll (although all current expenses would be borne by the union), and union dues collection by the district.

The language concerning the dues actually suggests that the union may feel that, because of this week’s Supreme Court decision slapping down the SEIU in California, it has no choice but to go to war over the issue.  The phrase no “legally cognizable justification” in this context basically means, “we think you’re wrong, but we can’t say why.”  By dropping the specious 1st Amendment claim they had made before, the union is essentially dropping the notion that this is contestable in court.  They may try, but they can’t win on those grounds and they know it.
Ironically, that may have made it harder to reach an agreement, if there were one there to be reached.  The union, realizing that it has no chance in the courts, is now turning to the NLRB or the CDLE for help, and is doing two things here.  First, it’s taking back the concessions, putting them back on the table in the case of mediation or arbitration.  (Of course, there is nothing to prevent the district from doing the same.)  Second, intervention by the NLRB requires that management not be negotiating in good faith, so the union is beginning to lay out its case.
They’re clearly doing so in the section on Full-Time Employees, where they continue to demand that their unions head stay on the district payroll, with the union picking up current expenses, even if they aren’t actually doing any teaching.  They do this by claiming that management is practicing an “unwarranted interference” in the union’s ability to choose its own representatives, which would be a violation of 29 U.S.C. § 157.  Any judge in his right mind would dismiss this out of hand; the fact is that the union could make up the benefit by providing its own pension plan for its own employees, or by setting up a 401(k).  Many unions do this, although the AFT currently does not, and the Ohio affiliate has even tried to argue that a pension plan is better both for the employee and the employer than a 401(k).  Any decent judge would rule this out of bounds; there’s no telling what the CDLE or the NLRB would do.
As for the ER&D training mentioned in that paragraph, this is a red herring, but it’s a complicated little red herring.  It appears that the union is also trying to argue that, by preventing the union heads from being “teachers,” it’s also preventing them from taking advantage of the union-developed ER&D training.  In fact, the ER&D training is paid for and owned by the district, while the content and administration are controlled by the AFT.  It appears that the union’s argument is that since the program is mandated by and paid for by the district, it can’t have oversight of how well that program is implemented – or establish the requirement – unless the person it’s overseeing is a teacher.  But it seems to me that this could be easily solved by a contractual relationship with the ER&D supervisor, with certain standards of performance.  The union has already agreed to supervision of its union heads in their roles of ER&D delivery; why this can’t be continued under a contractual relationship is beyond me.   But in claiming that the ER&D program is proprietary to the national AFT, and that those supervising it must be teachers, it’s probably trying to further its claim that the district is interfering in union affairs by refusing to employ the union heads as teachers at all.
In short, this letter isn’t a serious response, but it’s certainly a walk-back of previous concessions, not in preparation for a court battle it knows it can’t win, or for negotiations in which it has forfeited public support, but for mediation or arbitration that it hopes takes place on the friendly turf of the CDLE or the NLRB.
They’re planning to do this at least in part because the overwhelming majority of teachers have already signed individual contracts.  In the absence of a CBA, those individual contracts indicate that a strike would be considered “abandonment,” a costly process for the abandoner, who would have to reimburse the district up to 150% of salary for the cost of having to find a replacement.  It’s unclear to me as to whether or not arbitration or mediation would have to start before the expiration of the current CBA at the end of the month.

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PERA, the Unions, and You

One of the less-noticed points of contention at Douglas County’s open negotiations the other week was the status of school district employees who are actually on the union payroll.  Basically, union heads leave the classroom to spend their time representing teachers and the union, yet remain officially school district employees.  The district wants to end this practice, and in fact, pick-slipped the union heads a couple of weeks ago.  The union wants to retain them as district employees, and claims that this is a non-issue, as the union reimburses the district for the employees’ salaries and PERA contributions.

The problem isn’t the current costs – although there may be some conflicts of interest in having a union boss refuse supervision and evaluation by the district, while still remaining nominally an employee.  The problem is PERA, and its something that the retirement plan ought to look at.

What happens here is that the unions, the national, state, and local, pay this employee’s salary.  That salary is no longer determined by the seniority or performance measures that apply to all other teachers, but by the people actually paying the salary.  So that employee is no longer being paid on their value to the district, or to the students, but to the union.  Their PERA benefits, which, over their lifetime, are calculated based on that salary.  Which means that PERA is paying benefits to potentially hundreds of employees statewide based not on their service to the taxpayers, but on their service to the union.  And since those benefits will, as currently constituted, far exceed the amount paid into the system, they constitute a net payout to the union, which doesn’t have to cover their own employees’ retirement benefits for those year.

The union will say that it’s unfair that a teacher should have to give up earned retirement benefits when they become a union rep.  But of course, they don’t have to give up anything they’re vested in.  This is, in the end, no different from a bureaucrat or a regulator leaving to take a job as a lobbyist.  They’re no longer directly serving the state government, and should no longer be a part of the state government retirement system, except for the benefits they have earned.  The union will argue that this will make becoming a union rep a much less desirable position, but never explain why that desirability should come at the direct expense of the taxpayer rather than the union and the teachers it represents.


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What I Saw At The Open Negotiations

Last night I attended the Douglas County teachers union contract negotiations conducted under the county’s new Open Negotiations policy.  This was the first meeting which teachers were able to attend, and the Douglas County Federation of Teachers – the local for the American Federation of Teachers – had called for teachers to show up in force.  There was the hope that a large, unruly audience might prove more entertaining than a philosophically incoherent negotiating team.

In the event, I had to settle for the incoherence, but it was illuminating enough.

The crowd itself was large – eventually reaching about 350 people – but well-fed, and thus, well-behaved.  Nobody tried to start a drum circle in the back of the room, for instance.  After some early applause, one of the union negotiators reminded the group that they were there are spectators, not participants, and more like spectators at the Masters or Wimbledon than the Super Bowl, at that.  The teachers resorted to mass waving a couple of times, but that’s the sort of thing that comes with hanging around grade-schoolers all day, I suppose, and the novelty quickly wore off.  No Pinkertons were needed.

Aside from the 1% – no, not that 1% – the 1% pay raise that the Board had proposed, the two most contentious issues were the district’s desire to stop collecting union dues, and the desire to stop paying the salaries of union heads who aren’t in the classroom.

The union tried to turn the first issue into a 1st Amendment fight, essentially arguing four things: 1) the union speaks for the teachers, so stopping the collections amounts to trying to squelch free speech, 2) the union is being singled out for this treatment because 3) it opposed the election of the current Board members, even though 4) it didn’t contribute dues money to their opponents’ political campaigns.

It should be fairly easy to ridicule these arguments and dispose of them.  A union, recognized by the district or not, is just an organization, and it should be responsible for contacting its own members and collecting its own dues.  There’s no good reason to spend taxpayer resources doing that, and the fact that the dues money goes right back into political campaigns to determine the unions’ negotiating partners and (evidently) collections agents, is just all the more reason to put that burden on the union itself.  It’s not a free speech issue, any more than Denver’s reluctance to come by and put a lein on my property against my shul dues is a free exercise issue.

Unfortunately, a federal judge in Wisconsin disagrees.  Thus the reason for Jed Palmer’s claim that this issue had been “extensively litigated in Wisconsin,” and the specific line of questioning trying to establish the same facts in Douglas County.  Unfortunately for the union, the Board showed that dues money had been used in campaigns, and also said that since each contract was negotiated separately, if they found evidence of similar activity on the part of, say, the bus drivers, they’d try to negotiate the same disengagement from them.  (You can see some of the raw video of this exchange.)

Since this is a negotiation, and not legislation, the union was basically arguing that they didn’t have the power to bargain away their members’ 1st Amendment rights, and claimed that this was an issue of working conditions.  There are, of course, all sorts of restrictions on teachers’ 1st Amendment rights when they’re working.  They get fired all the time for pushing their political views in the classroom, for instance.  They were trying to find legal backup for their position, claiming that not only was the district wrong, but that the negotiators couldn’t concede the point even if they wanted to.  Whether this is setting the stage for a strike or a lawsuit remains to be seen.

More interesting, although probably a slightly lower priority for the teachers, was to stop having the union heads be district employees, as they are no longer in the classroom, but have as their sole job representing the teachers.  The union has already offered to reimburse the district for all of the salary, and all of the PERA contribution costs, of those positions, which run to several hundred thousand dollars a year.

What’s the issue here, since the union has offered to reimburse all the expenses, and the salary will get paid whether or not the union leader is working for the union or for the district?  It seems as though either side could give way without any loss.

Not so fast.  The key here is the PERA benefits, which are calculated by a formula based on earnings, which are set by the union.  Making a union head leave PERA for the duration of his service would certainly make union leadership a less desirable task.  But it’s also unfair on the face of it to put taxpayers on the hook for benefits they can’t limit, for services not being rendered to them.  (Somehow, and I’m really not sure how, this issue got tied up with the national AFT’s Education Research & Dissemination program, sort of a classroom best-practices training that they run.  But it appears that that, too, is paid for by dues and not by the district.)

At one point, in the middle of the discussions, Jed Palmer decided to launch an all-out blitz on the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national organization of conservative state legislators, and its supposed marionette-like control over the board.  While hypocrisy is always one of the easiest political charges to level, it’s worth pointing out that teachers unions – including the AFT – have a long history of collaborating with outside groups, as well.

Van Jones and other assorted fellow-travelers have attempted to make ALEC toxic, with a little success, mostly because it’s a very successful way for conservatives to coordinate legislative policy nationally, as the left has done for decades.  I doubt that ALEC’s toxicity extends to the general public, though, and it seemed to be more of a way of both building on that campaign, and rallying the troops.

Therein lies one of the dangers of open negotiations, but also one of the opportunities.  The crowd Thursday night was well-behaved.  But it’s still early. If the union finds that it has over-stated its position on, say dues collection, it’s going to find it more difficult to walk back a public position than a private one.  Even when teachers were well-informed of what was going on behind closed doors, while the public wasn’t, they weren’t a physical presence in the negotiating room.  The presence of a large number of angry teachers – and if things drag out, they could get angry – could serve to intimidate their own negotiators as much as the school board.

On the other hand, assuming that the sessions don’t have to move behind shatter-proof glass, the open sessions will allow an interested public to see what positions are taken, what justifications are used, and may ultimately, over time, have the effect of forcing both parties to engage in more persuasion, less posturing.

UPDATE: I tweeted as much of the proceedings as I could stay for; once the negotiations moved into salaries and benefits, I just didn’t have the numbers or understanding of the issues to be able to comment intelligently.  You can see the thread, my tweets, and the very illuminating tweets from @parentLEDreform.

UPDATE II: From someone more familiar with the FTE issue than I:

Here is the ironic thing. Earlier this year, the administration realized that although we were paying half the union leadership’s salary (actual compensation for particular individuals varies), they were not doing anything that we could see for the District. Dr. Fagen asked them to be accountable for the half we were paying, i.e. spend time with an assigned administrator completing special projects. Initially, the president agreed, but then she backed off the statement. She said she was not interested in such an arrangement. Dr. Fagen sent her an email documenting their conversation, reiterating their understanding that the union would now be paying 100% instead of participating in a collaborative relationship for partial pay. The union agreed… then backtracked again, calling in attorneys. Eventually the Board thought we might be better off divesting ourselves of this torturous relationship. We would not be talking about union salary reimbursement, PERA, etc. right now if they had simply agreed to accountability for the 50% of pay.

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