MTA lauds SJC ruling that Ed Reform Act doesn't 'trump' collective bargaining

Feb. 28, 2003
Contact: Jerry Spindel, MTA Communications, 617-878-8306

The Massachusetts Teachers Association has applauded today's decisions by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court which affirm, in the words of the ruling, that "personnel policies related to the terms and conditions of employment remain properly the subject of collective bargaining."

The decisions, according to MTA attorney Ira Fader, "in effect, reaffirm the vitality of collective bargaining in the context of the Education Reform Act and put the brakes on management arguments seeking to expand exclusive, non-bargainable managerial authority."

In School Committee of Pittsfield v. United Educators of Pittsfield, the SJC upheld an arbitrator's order for the school committee to rescind its decision to involuntarily transfer a special education teacher to a different position in another school building. The arbitrator found that the administration, in violation of the contract, had compelled the teacher to accept a position that was not comparable to her prior position. The Superior Court affirmed the arbitrator's award.

In Newton School Committee v. Newton School Custodians Association (Local 454, SEIU), the SJC affirmed the arbitrability of a case in which an arbitrator found that the school committee had failed to follow contractual procedures for promoting cafeteria staff and ordered the employer to grant the promotion to the grievant. The SJC, however, also held that the arbitrator could not order the promotion as a remedy and remanded the case to the arbitrator to come up with an alternative remedy.

The SJC transferred both cases from the Appeals Court on its own initiative.

Fader, who argued the case for the Pittsfield teacher, explained: "The SJC's interest in the cases arose from the perceived tension between, on one hand, the rights of teachers to collectively bargain and to enforce their agreements in arbitration over issues affecting assignment, appointing, bumping, transfer and promotional rights and, on the other hand, the new right of principals under the Education Reform Act to hire and fire all personnel."

In its Pittsfield decision, the SJC states that , in enacting the Education Reform Act, "the Legislature's commitment to school reform [did not] trump the Commonwealth's strong public policy favoring collective bargaining between public employers and employees over the conditions and terms of employment. A school principal may have the authority to fill a vacant position, but personnel policies related to the terms and conditions of employment remain properly the subject of collective bargaining agreements negotiated on behalf of the school district by the school committee as its exclusive bargaining agent."

In the court's view, the Legislature "carefully balanced school-based management reforms with the district-wide needs of school systems and the collective bargaining rights of school employees."

"In this context," Fader said, "the question was whether or not the principal's or superintendent's authority to involuntarily transfer employees was a 'hiring decision' under the Education Reform Act. The SJC held that it was not. The SJC said that a 'voluntary transfer' and an 'involuntary transfer' are distinct personnel actions. An 'involuntary transfer' is made to 'satisfy district-wide staffing concerns,' a matter within the school committee's power. For this reason, an involuntary transfer procedure is a proper subject for collective bargaining.

"Unfortunately," Fader added, "the court did not overturn earlier decisions regarding voluntary transfers, despite compelling arguments to do so."

The SJC viewed voluntary transfers as "a process allowing the applicant to change jobs without the consent of the principal of the transferee school [which] would impair the prerogatives of principals and managers of their schools."

"Nevertheless, it is clear that the expansion of the reasoning in those cases has been stopped," Fader concluded.