Hourly unions reject final offer

Until last week, Oakland University employees represented by Campus Maintenance and Trade and the Professional Support Association were working under extensions of contracts that had expired over a year ago. Now, they are in an even more tenuous situation.

After 15 months of bargaining, OU administration terminated the contract extensions of both CMT and PSA on Oct. 7 when both unions rejected OU’s final offer.

The two unions had been working under these conditions since their contract expired in July 2008.

By the Michigan Public Employment Relations Act, OU must honor the wages and working conditions of the previous contract during what is called an impasse.

 However, OU has an obligation to uphold other parts of the contract such as the collection of union dues.

Jan Shelito of the Michigan Education Association, who is the chief bargainer for both CMT and PSA, said she believes the university will uphold all the conditions of the previous contract.

“They have made no indication that they intend to not recognize any parts of the contract,” Shelito said.

A few rumors had circulated on campus, claiming that the MEA had sued the university and the university was not bargaining with the unions.

Members of each party denied those claims. Ron Watson, vice president of OU Human Resources and chief bargainer for OU, responded briefly to an e-mail, specifically to clarify misleading information.

“I am not aware of any lawsuits that the MEA has filed involving negotiations, and we are continuing to negotiate,” Watson said.

Citing OU policy, Watson did not provide any further comment on the negotiations.

Shelito said that while no suits have yet been filed, she and others in the MEA are meticulously examining the recent events and weighing possible legal options.

“We area reviewing the actions of the university to see what legal options we have, up to and including litigation,” Shelito said.

Although she didn’t file any formal lawsuit, Shelito did file for fact-finding, a process of arbitration by which an independent investigator is assigned to objectively review each party’s claims about the unsettled provisions of the contract being negotiated and make a non-binding recommendation of what a fair compromise should look like.

Michael Long, professor in the school of education and chair of OU’s human resources development program, is also a labor lawyer and fact finder.

Long said that OU is not allowed to implement any new conditions of employment while the fact-finding is being conducted.

It is “better in this case, means it’s one of those things that depends on the circumstances,” Long said. “For example, if the employer wanted to cut wages, they would have to justify cutting wages. If the union wanted a raise, they would have to justify that.”

Long said that the Michigan Public Employment Relations Act curiously does not say anything about job protection, meaning it is not clear whether employees at a contract impasse are “at will,” meaning the university can fire them for any reason, or “just cause” employees, meaning they have the right to due process in all firings or demotions.

Shelito said the university will respect the just cause provisions of the expired contracts.

She said it is unlikely that the university would unilaterally implement such authority without making a “last best” offer, which is reportedly more severe than a final offer.

“Generally, when the employer gives you their last best offer, it’s a sign that they’re looking to impose something, and the employer has given us no indication that they are going to change our health care or affect our wages or anything like that.”

Neither union head gave an official statement.

CMT President Chris Turkopp is currently on vacation, and Sandy Gabert, president of PSA, said she did not want to comment on the record without MEA representation present.

The unions are scheduled to meet with a court mediator this Friday in another formal bargaining session before fact-finding begins.