I want to clear up a common misunderstanding about “union rules” that was expressed in a recent news article in my local paper–actually the largest paper in the entire state. The article was about the lay off of 15 teachers, 12 para-educators, 2 secretaries, and 6 custodians from one of the smaller school districts in our state, due to a most unfortunate set of circumstances. The lay-off announcement was made public last week by the local school board.
What a terrible outcome from a very difficult situation. Through no fault of their own, 35 employees will be out of work during a severe economic downturn–employees in public schools in a sweet, small, fairly rural town and school district which in the past 15 or so years has lost significant resources formerly based primarily in agriculture. Having a greatly reduced tax base is only part of the story. And, certainly the national economic landscape is a contributing factor.
I won’t go into all of the reasons why or how, but this district has hit the bottom financially–they are bankrupt, and indicated earlier in the year that they would have great difficulty making payroll. So, the state has stepped in to assist them in finding some ways out of this situation and to investigate the possible causes of such serious financial distress. Employee lay-off always looks like an obvious, if temporary remedy. In this case–in a very small school district–the loss of this many employees (people who filled valuable positions in each of their schools) will end up having untold consequences for students, families, programs, and opportunities. A lot will suffer for this decision.
[I feel their pain. I have had recent and personal experience with living through district insolvency. It is devastating for kids and adults, for employees and the community, and it has a lasting impact on local politics and decision-making].
The news article included the following statement: “Union rules required the district to notify staff by May 15 if they are not guaranteed a job next year.” This is not accurate information. Union rules have nothing to do with the timing of the announcement or with the announcement itself.
The May 15 deadline regarding notification of employees of their imminent loss of employment actually comes from Delaware State Code—Title 14, Chapter 14, to be exact. The State apparently felt that this was important enough to warrant inclusion in Code. Many, if not all, teacher contracts in the state include this language as a reflection of the rule of law set by Delaware Code. The inclusion of Code information in the contract article governing lay-off is nothing more than an incorporation of the language into the collective bargaining agreement.
Additionally, “union rules” is not really the proper or most advisable way to reference an article or portion of an article from a negotiated agreement. The term negotiated agreement indicates that both (or all parties) have reached consensus on a topic or set of topics—both have had their say; both have conceded on lesser issues; both have found a point of mutual satisfaction. In this case, it is a documented agreement between the school board and the employee group. If either party were not satisfied, they would not have signed on the dotted line.
The use of the phrase “union rules require” or “due to union rules” feels like a jab at unions and their members as intractable, insensitive, and unwilling to give in.
Language matters. In my world, there are no union rules. Our organization has By-laws and resolutions. We have norms that we invoke that govern less formal meetings. We use Roberts Rules of Order as the guidelines for our more important meetings like Executive Board and Representative Assemblies. And, there is contractual language; language agreed upon as the result of collective bargaining; language agreed to by both parties–a mutually negotiated agreement.
Heck–some folks might think that I am being over-sensitive here, but I don’t think so. I would suggest that the information may have been more accurately and less sensationally reported as: Delaware State Code required the district to notify staff by May 15 if they are not guaranteed a job next year.
The fact that negotiated agreements between local union members and the governing school board included that requirement as part of the language regarding employee lay-offs is lost on the everyday reader. I can just hear it now: “Those damned unions. There they go again, telling our schools what they have to do.” Some reader may have even misconstrued that “union rules” were somehow to blame for these job losses. Not so.