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
"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
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