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Bristol Board of Education v. State Board of Labor Relations

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

June 21, 2016

BRISTOL BOARD OF EDUCATION
v.
STATE BOARD OF LABOR RELATIONS ET AL.

          Argued February 16, 2016

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of New Britain, Schuman, J.

          William R. Connon, with whom, on the brief, was Zachary D. Schurin, for the appellant (plaintiff).

          Harry B. Elliott, Jr., general counsel, for the appellee (named defendant).

          J. William Gagne, Jr., with whom, on the brief, was Kimberly A. Cuneo, for the appellee (defendant AFSCME, Council 4, Local 2267).

          DiPentima, C. J., and Alvord and West, Js.

          OPINION

          ALVORD, J.

         The plaintiff, the Bristol Board of Education (school board), appeals from the judgment of the Superior Court affirming the decision of the defendant State Board of Labor Relations (labor board), sustaining the complaint brought by the defendant Local 2267 of Council 4, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (union) against the school board. The school board argues that the court erred in affirming the labor board’s decision that the school board violated General Statutes § 7-470 (a) (4) of the Municipal Employee Relations Act (act) by failing to abide by ground rules that were agreed upon at the commencement of successor contract negotiations. The labor board concluded that the school board’s negotiating committee did not comply with the agreed upon ground rules after reaching a mediated tentative agreement with the union regarding the outsourcing of food service operations.

         The school board claims that the trial court erred by (1) not finding that the ground rules were inapplicable, as a matter of law, to the mediated tentative agreement on food service operations, (2) not finding that the school board did not intend for the ground rules of the successor collective bargaining agreement to apply to midterm bargaining over issues regarding food service operations, and (3) concluding that the labor board appropriately interpreted the agreed upon ground rules to require the negotiating committees to unanimously recommend ratification of the mediated tentative agreement regarding food service operations to their respective constituents. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         The school board was an employer within the meaning of the act, and the union was the exclusive bargaining representative of the school board’s cafeteria employees. Beginning on July 1, 2009, the school board and the union were parties to a collective bargaining agreement that was scheduled to expire on June 30, 2013.[1] On February 27, 2013, the school board’s human resources director sent a letter to the union president seeking to initiate negotiations on a successor agreement. In the same letter, the school board’s human resources director disclosed that, due to budget constraints, the school board wanted to have the ability to outsource food service operations. The 2009 contract had prohibited outsourcing: ‘‘There shall be no subcontracting or outsourcing of food service operations during the term of this Agreement . . . .’’

         The parties commenced new contract negotiations in May, 2013. Each party identified a negotiating committee consisting of seven representatives. The school board’s negotiating committee included four school board members. At the outset, the parties agreed to a set of ground rules that would govern their conduct as they negotiated a new agreement. Paragraph 9 of the agreed upon ground rules stated: ‘‘When a tentative agreement is reached on the entire contract, it shall be reduced to writing and presented for ratification by the full Board and the Union. Both parties agree that any tentative agreement reached at the table shall be recommended to their respective constituents for ratification.’’

         By July, 2013, representatives for the school board and union had not reached an agreement as it pertained to food service operations. Under the midterm bargaining rules of the act, the parties initiated binding arbitration proceedings only as to the issue of outsourcing food service operations.[2] In a joint stipulation, the parties submitted their initial positions on the food service operation issue. The school board sought contractual language stating: ‘‘The Board shall have the right to subcontract or outsource food service operations if and when it deems it to be in the best interest of the Bristol Public Schools to do so.’’ The union requested that the collective bargaining agreement be silent as to the outsourcing of food service operations.

         In an effort to reach a mutual agreement and avoid the imposition of an arbitration panel decision, the parties simultaneously entered into mediation with respect to the food service operations. On August 14, 2013, with the assistance of a state mediator, the negotiating committees for the parties reached a tentative agreement that was memorialized in writing. The mediated tentative agreement included union concessions as to cafeteria employee benefits and stated in relevant part that there would be ‘‘[n]o contract language on cafeteria layoff/outsourcing’’ and ‘‘[n]o other cafeteria – specific changes shall be proposed in negotiations over a successor collective bargaining agreement.’’[3] The representatives of each party presented the mediated tentative agreement to their respective constituents for final approval.

         The union’s membership was the first to vote on the mediated tentative agreement. The union ratified the mediated tentative agreement and notified the school board. On September 5, 2013, the school board met in executive session to discuss the mediated tentative agreement. The school board’s human resources director testified before the labor board that three of the school board members who served on the negotiating committee recommended to their fellow school board members that they ratify the mediated tentative agreement. During the same session, school board member Larry Amara, who also served on the negotiating committee, stated that he was ‘‘ ‘having trouble’ ’’ with the mediated tentative agreement. At no time during the school board meeting did he affirmatively endorse ratification of the mediated tentative agreement. The school board convened into public session and voted five to four to reject the mediated tentative agreement. Amara was among the board members who voted against the mediated tentative agreement. The three other school board members who served on the negotiating committee voted to approve the mediated tentative agreement.

         After the school board voted against ratification of the mediated tentative agreement, the union filed a complaint with the labor board.[4] The union alleged that the board had violated § 7-470 (a) (4)[5] when it failed to ratify the mediated tentative agreement. More specifically, the union argued that Amara’s actions violated the parties’ ground rules and thus constituted a failure to bargain in good faith as required by the statute. The labor board concluded that Amara’s actions violated the ground rules that were agreed to on May 28, 2013, because Amara did not recommend ratification of the mediated tentative agreement and he voted against ratification. The labor board found that: ‘‘The parties signed the [mediated] tentative agreement with the mutual intent that each would present and recommend it to their respective constituents pursuant to paragraph 9 of the May 28, 2013 ground rules.’’ The labor board concluded: ‘‘Ground rules for collective bargaining negotiations are a mandatory subject of bargaining and the taking of unilateral action inconsistent with a mutually agreed upon ground rule constitutes a refusal to bargain in good faith and a prohibited practice. . . . The School Board violated the mutually agreed upon ground rules and the Act when members of its bargaining committee failed to recommend approval of a tentative agreement.’’ The labor board ordered that the school board implement the terms and conditions of the August 14, 2013 mediated tentative agreement.[6]

         The school board appealed the labor board’s decision to the trial court, Schuman, J. The school board first argued that its negotiating committee members were not required to recommend ratification. In support of its argument, the school board claimed that the agreed upon ground rules were not applicable as a matter of law to the mediation resulting in the tentative agreement and substantial evidence was not presented to support the labor board’s conclusion that the parties had mutually intended for the ground rules to apply under these mediation circumstances. However, this argument contradicted language used by the very same school board in a posthearing brief filed with the labor board: ‘‘Pursuant to the parties’ ground rules, the tentative agreement was recommended to the full Bristol Board of Education by the Chairperson of the Negotiating Committee, the Chairperson of the Bristol ...


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