Teachers pact is unsigned after seniority language status leads to union dispute

MARQUETTE – The Marquette Area Public Schools district and its teacher union, the Marquette Area Education Association, are still operating without a signed contract, though both sides ratified a tentative agreement nearly seven months ago.

A fundamental disagreement over what was included in the contract seems to take both sides into murky waters.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed a slate of laws in July of 2011 that kept personnel issues related to layoffs and employee discipline from being subject to union negotiations. Seniority is one of the prohibited subjects.

The district’s previous contract with the MAEA was ratified before the legislation was signed, so language pertaining to those prohibited bargaining items remained.

However, the district was looking to remove that language as it negotiated a new 2012-2013 contract.

According to MAPS Superintendent Deb Veiht and MAPS Board of Education President Rich Rossway, the district and the union both ratified a written tentative agreement that did not say the language would be struck. Veiht and Rossway said a verbal agreement to remove the language had been made prior to ratification.

“We weren’t allowed to talk about it at the table, but each time we went into the session we said, ‘And this item will be removed from the contract,'” Veiht said. “Everybody knew that. We gave the contract with the black line to the teachers, met with them three times and then their union UniServ director said ‘You cannot sign that, that’s not the contract that we told our teachers about.'”

Stu Skauge, the Michigan Education Association’s UniServ director for Marquette and Alger counties, was part of the MAEA’s negotiating team and said no verbal agreement was ever made.

“I’ve been negotiating contracts for 30 years,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a verbal agreement when you’re negotiating contracts. You just can’t do that. The bylaws require that you put the written tentative agreement in the hands of the teachers before they vote, so that would not even be proper for the negotiating team to say, ‘We had a verbal agreement.'”

The MAEA, according to Skauge, ratified the tentative agreement shortly before the MAPS board ratified it in early September. Both sides have agreed the ratification of the tentative agreement made the pact a legally binding document, even though a contract was signed only by the union.

The board has not signed the contract because it still contains language on the prohibited bargaining items.

“Once it’s voted on by both sides, it’s a done deal,” Skauge said.

Rossway and Veiht, citing advice given by their legal counsel, said a ratified tentative agreement must be implemented at its start date. The MAEA’s contract year began July 1, 2012. It ends June 30.

According to a copy of the tentative agreement provided by Skauge, the union would see, among other things, no increase on the salary schedule, one paid step increase and a $300 signing bonus to be pro-rated for less-than-full-time teachers.

Veiht said offering steps to the entire district cost about $399,000.

Michigan law stipulates a signed contract must be in place before any steps can be provided to a union and both sides feel they met that standard.

“When that contract was ratified, we had an obligation – a legal obligation – to implement that contract,” Rossway said. “The language, typically, comes a month or two later.”

According to Brad Banasik, legal counsel and director of labor relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, ratification by both sides makes a tentative agreement legally binding.

“Ratification is key,” he said, adding that the association has been advising its members to “put the union on notice that the prohibitive subjects are going to be removed, so any contract that we ratify, assume that the prohibitive subjects are not going to be in there.”

According to Veiht and Rossway, that notification was given on several occasions during negotiations, though the change – removing the language from the final contract – was never put into the written tentative agreement. She said prior to ratification of the agreement, the union was given a copy of the contract language with the prohibited language clearly crossed out.

“They didn’t have it at the date of the tentative agreement, because those always come later,” Veiht said. “However, they knew. That’s why we were willing to give them the step. That’s why we were willing to give them the signing bonus, was because we knew all that language was going to be removed and we wanted to be fair. In fact, the language we removed was the minimum language. We had a range of things that could be removed from the contract. We went for the minimum that kept us compliant.”

Skauge said he was aware the district wanted to remove the language, but said the union was unwilling to sign a document that had changes not outlined in the written tentative agreement. He said a verbal agreement between the two parties was never struck.

“I think that was a mistaken assumption,” Skauge said. “The final, tentative agreement which was issued by both parties, the union never initialed any language being removed. I think that probably there’s some misunderstanding about whether or not one side can just take language out. We can’t do it and they can’t do it.”

Veiht said she included that language in the document because she was told by the union that offering a contract that differed from the tentative agreement may have left the district open to a possible unfair labor practice charge.

The disagreement leaves both parties without a signed deal, though the tentative agreement has been in place and implemented since July.

With the expiration of the current agreement just three months away, Skauge said his focus is on negotiating the next contract.

“If any language needs to be addressed, we will address it during negotiations,” Skauge said. “Our working relationship with Marquette schools has been pretty good during the last negotiations and I expect it will be during the next, too.”

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.