Collective bargaining agreements, which is the written agreement that comes as the result of the bargaining process and the negotiations, cover a whole range of things, benefits, compensation, work rules, who can do what kind of work, when they can do it, what kinds of schedules are in there that limit when they can be assigned to work or were asked to work.
I’d say one of the biggest challenges over at least the 30 years I’ve been sort of observing and involved in that process has been health insurance.
Another thing that can be a factor, job security is really issue number one when it comes to labor relations on the employee side.
Meet and discuss is not the same as negotiations. It’s more of an input process, and these Act 93 plans are not agreements, so it’s not a negotiating process.
Annette Stevenson: Can you start, Stuart, by giving some examples of the kinds of things that are decided by collective bargaining in the public schools?
Stuart Knade: Well, it’s obviously more than about just salaries, although that is certainly a very important thing that gets negotiated in the collective bargaining process, but collective bargaining agreements, which is the written agreement that comes as the result of the bargaining process and the negotiations, cover a whole range of things, benefits, compensation, work rules, who can do what kind of work, when they can do it, what kinds of schedules are in there that limit when they can be assigned to work or asked to work.
Disciplinary procedures, a very important aspect of collective bargaining agreements, are grievance and arbitration provisions for grievances, which are basically disputes about how the contract is being implemented or interpreted by the employer or the union. That can include disciplinary matters as well as other kinds of things, including benefits and how those are administered and so on. Everything from various kinds of leaves and sick days and personal days, release time for union officials to do their union work away from their normal jobs, and that kind of thing.
Annette Stevenson: What are the roles at the schools that are involved in the process of collective bargaining, and then beyond the roles involved, what does that process look like?
Stuart Knade: Well, we’ll start with the negotiations because, and that’s not the only thing we’re talking about when we talk about collective bargaining, because once you have a contract it’s then administered. There are other people who play a part in how the contract is actually administered over its lifetime for the number of years before it expires.
But at the negotiations process, each side will have a negotiating team that negotiates the successor contract when the last one is getting ready to expire. On the employer side, the school board side, the negotiating team may include school board members. It may include administrators. There will be people who are at the table. There will be people who are sort of behind the scenes. Most school districts, and we greatly encourage them to use professional labor counsel to assist them in the bargaining process.
It’s really not something, it’s not a good idea – I refer to it as do-it-yourself surgery if you try to do this on your own. And why, because on the other side, you’ll have a negotiating team from the union, which may include some professionals that are supplied by their parent union, their state level parent union, that the local is a member of, but it may also include some teachers, the union leadership and that kind of thing.
But those folks didn’t just raise their hands a few months before bargaining started and said, “Ooh, I’d be happy to be on your bargaining team this year.” They’ve generally been in some very intensive training for years before they sit down at the table. It’s not a good idea to think you can step into that ring without that kind of training, and that’s where the professional labor council come in.
That process will lead to throughout the negotiating process, those might be the most visible faces, although bargaining does take place generally behind closed doors. It’s not a public process for the most part, but then ultimately the school board has to ratify the final contract when it’s been tentatively agreed to. Along the way, the school board will be briefed on what the back and forth is, where the positions have changed.
The school board will give the negotiating team a certain scope of authority within which to bargain and make agreements. There will be agreements about certain issues along the way that are then settled and put aside, while they focus on maybe things that they’re having more difficulty coming to agreement on. Then at the end, you go back and you gather up all the things, all the side issues that were decided, were basically tentatively agreed to along the way, and then bring a final agreement, which often isn’t in written form, completely spelled out in written form when the school board votes on it, but the basic principles are all mapped out.
Then of course, that’s subject to the parties’ agreement on the actual wording that comes into that, and of course, the union membership also ratifies the final agreement. They generally go along with the recommendation of their negotiating team and the leadership of their local union.
Then once you get past that, once you have a contract, then the roles shift a little bit because the school district administration is going to be involved in the daily administration of what the contract says about work rules, assignments, disciplinary procedures, how pay and compensation are administered and that kind of thing. The school board may, at some point, have to modify policies to reflect what was agreed to in the collective bargaining agreement.
On the union side, employees, when they are dealing with management on certain issues, will have representation from the union president or other local leadership on the union side. Those roles then become the face of how the contract is administered throughout this process. I think it’s important to remember that collective bargaining is about the employees being represented, and so the actual contract negotiation is a big part of that, but they’re represented for a lot of other things and the union is their exclusive representative for that category of employees.
Annette Stevenson: What are some of the common misconceptions, do you think, about collective bargaining as it relates to school governance?
Stuart Knade: Well, one common misconception is a belief that before a union goes on strike, when there’s been a bargaining impasse, that the strike is voted on on the eve of the strike by the rank and file membership and that’s often not true. Often that strike authorization has been given early on in the negotiations process, and it’s strictly the union leadership that decides when the strike occurs.
Annette Stevenson: I see, so it could have been in the discussion for some time.
Stuart Knade: Well, that’s right. It’s just something that the union leadership, the unions negotiating team has in their back pocket. They get that early on. They keep it in their back pocket. They use it when they see fit, and they usually don’t go back to the rank and file for a strike authorization vote again.
Annette Stevenson: Okay, understood.
Stuart Knade: That’s kind of a misconception. I think another misconception is this belief that bargaining should be held in public, and it’s a very intensive process. I’d say that most labor counsel for employers, including school district employers, would advise against that. It leads to things that are unproductive and so on and so forth. Now, there are times when one side or the other will wage some sort of a public statement campaign to put pressure on the other side, but they have to be careful how they do that because the employer again is required by law to deal with the union through its exclusive representatives.
You don’t want to make statements in a way that bypasses that process. Although everybody has a first amendment right to communicate what their positions are on things like collective bargaining, and so those are a couple examples of misconceptions that exist.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah, public misconceptions. What are some of the issues that historically have posed a particular challenge for schools during collective bargaining?
Stuart Knade: Well, compensation has its own challenges, and over the years, there have been a lot of shifts in how the parties, and this is both the union and the school district’s approach, how their salary scales operate, and there have been different philosophies applied. What we’re talking is the steps that employees move to with their seniority as they move up a step based on seniority, as well as what they call column movement, which is where they might go into a different column based on advanced degrees and additional credits and perhaps other factors.
Those can sometimes get all bunched up and create some very large steps. It’s not all incremental. Then one side or the other will see the need to compact the salary scale into a fewer number of steps, and it has gone back and forth over the years. That can be a great challenge, but I’d say one of the biggest challenges over at least the 30 years I’ve been sort of observing and involved in that process has been health insurance.
Health insurance is always an important benefit that the union and the employee side has fought vigorously to get but one of the… How rich the plan is, what the deductibles are, whether or not there’s even going to be any employee cost sharing, beyond things like deductibles and copays and things like that, or even if there’s going to be deductibles and copays. It has gotten to the point over time that at times it’s the salaries themselves have kind of taken a back seat, or at least the salary discussions have gotten completely hung up because of the health insurance issues.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah. That was a big area.
Stuart Knade: It’s been a very contentious thing, and of course, as the cost of health insurance and healthcare in general has skyrocketed over the years, that’s really magnified that as an issue at the bargaining table.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah. It’s impacting the take home amounts for these individuals and probably pretty dramatically in some instances.
Stuart Knade: For sure, for sure. Another thing that can be a factor, job security is really issue number one when it comes to labor relations on the employee side. When you get into job security issues, those are going to be very important. There’s a side piece of negotiating that has to happen before an employer can outsource, can contract out work that was previously done by employees who were unionized. An employer can’t unilaterally say, “We’re no longer going to operate our own bus fleet. We’re going to contract it out to bus contractors.”
You can’t just do that unilaterally. If those employees were unionized, you have to negotiate that, you have to bargain over that, and basically go to the union and then say, “We’re thinking about doing this because we think it can save us a lot of money. This is what we’re thinking. Do you have a counterproposal to make that will help make more financial sense than where we believe we are today?” In other words, you’re asking for concessions.
Annette Stevenson: Sure, so that’s possibly another area of misconception, even, in the understanding of how that can happen.
Stuart Knade: Yes, and until you reach impasse, which is not something that can be defined in black and white, and that can take many months, even years, before you get to what the courts might, or the labor relations board, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, would view as genuine impasse, such that the employer can then say, “You know what, we’re not getting anywhere here. We’re now entitled to unilaterally do this because we bargained at the impasse.”
It’s a long process, and if you don’t win the dispute over whether you’re at impasse, you have a lot of eggs to unscramble.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah, you mentioned the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. Can you explain what that is?
Stuart Knade: The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, or the PLRB, is sort of the state analog to the National Labor Relations Board. Now, the National Labor Relations Board and the National Labor Relations Act applies to private sector bargaining and public sector in the federal, among federal employees, they have a role in that. But because we’re talking about public sector employees in Pennsylvania, it’s the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board that administers Act 195, the Pennsylvania, the Public Employee Relations Act, and also some other laws.
That’s not the only law that governs public sector employees, state and local government employees in Pennsylvania, the policemen and firemen, and certain other categories of public safety employees operate under different laws. They don’t operate under Act 195, but the PLRB administers that too, and they will rule on charges of unfair labor practices. They also rule on matters that relate to who is going to be the exclusive representative of the employees.
When a group of employees decides to unionized, they have different ways of indicating that preference. When a sufficient percentage of employees have said, we want to be represented by such and such a union. If there are disputes over that, the PLRB will rule on those two, and if the scope of who’s in the union needs to change, then there will be some adjustments in who that union is certified to be the exclusive representative for, what kinds of employees come together, because you can’t just have one union that represents every category of employees in most cases.
Only the people who have what they call a community of interest, various kinds of employees can have a community of interest that allows them to be represented by a single collective bargaining representative. Those kinds of issues also go to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.
Annette Stevenson: Okay, understood. Now with respect to management staff in the school sector, so including the superintendent, how are compensation and benefits decided for management staff since they are not permitted to engage in collective bargaining?
Stuart Knade: Correct. The lowest level of management staff, the first level supervisors, have always been able to organize and for certain purposes, but they couldn’t necessarily have their own negotiations, collectively bargain, and they can’t strike. That’s under act 195, but under a section of the school code that is commonly referred to as Act 93, and this, of course, we talk about act numbers. There’s probably an Act 93 every year.
This Act 93 goes back to, I believe, 1986 or so, and that was the statute that was passed that said for management level employees and anybody else who’s not allowed to be in a union by virtue of the kind of position they’re in are, are part of what they have to be covered by what’s called an administrator compensation plan. The administrator compensation plan is a plan adopted by the school board, but it has to be the result of a meet and discuss process if the employees who it covers were asked for that.
Meet and discuss is not the same as negotiations. It’s more of an input process, and these Act 93 plans are not agreements, so it’s not a negotiating process. Mutual agreement isn’t necessary, it’s desirable, but ultimately it’s the school board that decides what the Act 93 plan is going to consist of, what it’s going to provide for, and it’s required to outline the salary and benefits.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of Act 93 plans that have begun to look like collective bargaining agreements, and go beyond salary and benefits and begin to look at all kinds of other things, including evaluation procedures and disciplinary procedures and work rules and so on and so forth, which is probably not a good thing. It’s something we discourage, but a lot of them have gotten that way.
Why? Because almost everybody who’s in those ranks once was in a union. They’re used to having those things spelled out somewhere, so that’s not terribly surprising that that happens. It’s just not necessarily the best thing for the employer to have to lock itself in. An Act 93 plan has to be in effect for a minimum of one year and you can’t change it, even if the employees agree, you can’t change it until it expires. That’s a interesting limitation to an Act 93 plan.
I tell you, there’s another misconception that I hear from time to time or I sense from time to time, and that’s that collective bargaining and unionization, and not necessarily collective bargaining, but unionization of public sector employees started in 1970 when this law was passed, at least in Pennsylvania. The question of whether public employees should be allowed to unionize was around for many years before that. I think the debate started to intensify in the late 1940s.
There’s a lot of differing opinions about whether or not it was a good thing for public employees to be unionized and not just the first responders and so on. Even in Pennsylvania years before Act 195 became law, teachers were striking. I remember they were trying to negotiate contracts. They already belong to unions, which they had a first amendment right to do, but they were trying to negotiate their salaries. When the negotiations weren’t going the way they wanted, they were striking. I saw that myself as a student in the Philadelphia school system, when the schools were shut down, and this was well before 1970.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah, okay. I think we’ve covered it start to finish as a nutshell version of the act. Is there anything you would add to it that you feel like even the public might want to know about it?
Stuart Knade: We publish a book called Labor Relations for School Leaders.
Annette Stevenson: Oh great.
Stuart Knade: The intent of that, the purpose of that book is to basically provide a crash course for administrators and school directors who were part of the process to sort of understand a lot of the ins and outs that just are not intuitive. The labor attorneys who represent school districts are constantly reeducating new faces within the school district administration and all the school board about.
The purpose of this is it’s an easy-to-read thing, covers a lot of ground, talks about lots of other misconceptions and some pitfalls and things, like in terms of bargaining strategies and how the whole process works. For those that are involved in the process or think they may be involved in the process, there are places where you can get a real good education in a hurry, and that’s one of them.
Annette Stevenson: That’s great. That’s great to know. I think that the misconceptions are what most folks read in the headlines, unfortunately, or at least playing upon the misconceptions. Some of the stories are angled, so I think that’s great for folks to know more about actually how that process works.
Stuart Knade: Members of the media would benefit greatly from that.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah, absolutely.
Stuart Knade: From information in there as well.
Annette Stevenson: You’re right. Okay. Well, we’ll include that resource with the episode of the podcast so that listeners can access that additional information if they would like to. Thanks so much for joining us on this episode of the podcast, Stuart. Thanks for spending the time explaining this.
Stuart Knade: Well, thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.