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  • Superior Court Overturns ‘Unfair Labor Practice’ Ruling Against Warwick School Committee

    [CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] Warwick Public Schools administration offices are located at 34 Warwick Lake Ave.

    [CREDIT: Rob Borkowski] Warwick Public Schools administration offices are located at 34 Warwick Lake Ave.

    PROVIDENCE, RI  — On Thursday, RI Superior Court Judge Bennett R. Gallo overturned the State Labor Relation Board’s order that the Warwick School Committee must honor the expired Teachers Union (WTU) contract, stating the decision was issued with no opportunity for the elected body to argue it, and that the ruling of unfair labor practices against the body was unfounded.

    In May 2016, the State Labor Relations Board ruled the Warwick School Committee had engaged in unfair labor practices by failing to arbitrate WTU grievances under their contract, an extension of which expired Aug. 31, 2015. The Board originally ordered the School Committee to “cease and desist from refusing to participate in the processing of grievances, including proceeding to arbitration.”

    The next day, the WTU filed a motion to amend the decision to maintain the terms and conditions of the contract until a new contract was settled, which the State Labor Relations Board granted without further hearings.

    “The Board issued its Amended Decision in this case on the Union’s motion without further hearing. The School Committee, it appears, was provided no opportunity to present for the Board’s consideration the particulars of any proposed departures from the terms of the expired CBA, along with its reasons why it should not be constrained by the Board’s status quo rule. In doing so, the Board acted arbitrarily and erroneously,” Gallo wrote.

    The State Labor Board’s amended decision stood to limit the number of teachers the School Committee sought to lay off that year. The School Committee had announced it would let go 65 teachers, but the contract would have only allowed 20 to be laid off. The School Committee appealed, and filed for a stay of the decision in Superior Court in August 2016, which was granted.

    Gallo cited a similar finding of violation of fair labor practices in a Supreme Court case,  Litton Fin. Printing Div. v. N.L.R.B., 501 U.S. 190, 205-06, 210 (1991), in which the National Relations Board found Litton had violated fair labor practices, but the court ordered Litton to bargain layoff grievances through the grievance process, not arbitration.

    “The Court’s review was limited to whether the layoff grievances were arbitrable,” Gallo wrote in his decision. The Supreme Court, he said, “held the obligation to arbitrate a grievance survives expiration of a CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) only where the grievance arises under the contract.”

    What is this?

    “Unlike in Litton, where the employer refused to discuss or participate in any grievance process with the union regarding the layoffs, here, the School Committee did engage with the Union regarding the two grievances filed after the expiration of the contract. See 501 U.S. at 194-95. There is simply no evidence in the record to support a finding of bad faith bargaining in violation of § 28-7-13(6) and (10). Under the circumstances, the Board erred in concluding that the School Committee committed an unfair labor practice,” Gallo wrote.

    “After review of the entire record, this Court finds the Amended Decision of the Board was clearly erroneous based on the evidence of record. Substantial rights of theSchool Committee have been prejudiced. Accordingly, the Amended Decision of the Board is reversed,” Gallo ordered.

    Superintendent Phil Thornton said the next scheduled mediation date between the Warwick Public Schools and the Warwick Teachers Union is March 22. The parties are also in ongoing statutory interest arbitration for a new contract.

    “We also will await the decision from interest arbitration in the spring,” Thornton said.

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