Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Negotiations Update - Strikes, Job Security, and Representation Issues

The part-time faculty union and Columbia College are in the middle of contract negotiations for a successor collective bargaining agreement.  The union, Part-Time Faculty Association of Columbia College (“PTFA”), was one of the first in the nation to represent part-time faculty at a private college.  Those negotiations, however, have led to more than a disagreement over contract issues.  The PTFA voted for and held the two-day strike at the end of November over the unresolved bargaining issues.  The focal point of the union’s two-day strike was an administrative proposal concerning job security.  While the union maintains the proposal would contractually strip them of job security, seniority in class assignments, and academic freedom, the administration for Columbia College has asserted that other factors than seniority should be considered in determining class assignments, such as outside professional expertise.  Although the negotiations resumed, to date, no agreement has yet been reached between Columbia College and the PTFA.

The two-day strike follows a recent district court decision that vacated an arbitrator’s award that held Columbia should not have included certain full-time faculty in the part-time faculty collective bargaining unit.  More specifically, the case concerned a continuing dispute over who represents a group of individuals who are employed by Columbia as both full-time staff and as part-time faculty. These individuals are referred to as "Full Time Staff who Teach", ("FTST"). With respect to their staff duties, FTST are represented by United Staff of Columbia College ("USCC"). The dispute concerns representation of the FTST in connection with their work as part-time faculty. Columbia maintains that the PTFA that represents all other part-time faculty also represents FTST in their roles as part-time faculty. Conversely, PTFA maintained that FTST are not members of its bargaining unit, or any other. PTFA filed a grievance alleging that Columbia College had violated various provisions of the collective bargaining agreement "by unilaterally adjusting and assigning seniority, tiering or credit history of employees including... `FTST'...who teach as part of their full-time staff job description..." and because "[n]one of the so-called `FTST' or other persons similarly identified by the College...have paid the necessary union dues or agency fees to accrue or maintain seniority in the P-fac unit." Arbitrator Perkovich issued an award finding that the collective bargaining unit did not include FTST within the PTFA bargaining unit. In issuing his award, Arbitrator Perkovich acknowledged that the NLRB had previously found that that FTST were included in the PTFA unit in their capacity as part-time faculty, the parties and never intended to include these employees in the same bargaining unit.  The award was ultimately challenged in the District Court which granted the request of Columbia College Chicago to vacate an award on the basis that it was contrary to NLRB decisions.

There are a couple of takeaways from both the strike and the decision to vacate the arbitrator’s award.
  • First, the two-day strike over job security is instructive for employers because it demonstrates that unions place particular emphasis not just in wages but in securing labor protections such as job security, safety and health, overtime, and family/medical leave and in enforcing those issues in negotiations. In the case of Columbia College, the PTFA actions make clear that unions will not always strike exclusively over wages. Rather, unions will undertake tremendous measures such as strikes to protect other interests of its membership, most importantly job security.
  • Second, the takeaway from this decision is that on matters of representation, employers should defer to the Board’s decision (i.e., the NLRB for private sector employers, ILRB for public sector employers, or the IELRB for public sector educational employers) because even if incorrect or unpersuasive, it will generally prevail over an arbitrator’s award.
Please contact us with any questions you may have about collective bargaining negotiations, strikes, or representation issues. As always, we will continue to update you on important collective bargaining developments.