William Felkner: Is the State Labor Relations Board biased? You betcha!
The dispute between the East Providence School Committee and the East Providence Teachers’ Union has focused attention of the Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board (SLRB), a largely obscure administrative body that referees disputes between management and labor. What little public information is available regarding the Board and its operations has caused taxpayers to be concerned that the process may be biased in favor of labor. And these are not new concerns.
In 2004, Governor Carcieri called for several SLRB members to resign after they ruled that child care workers providing services to children on welfare should be considered state employees. The far reaching effect of this decision could have opened the door for as many as 1300 state contract workers to become union members. That decision was eventually overturned by the Superior Court. At that time, it was noted that eight of the last nine SLRB decisions taken to the Supreme Court had been overturned.
Now, in 2009, we see another unsettling action from the SLRB that once again raises questions of bias.
In September, the East Providence School Committee filed a charge against the Teachers’ Union consisting of three pages of detailed allegations of obstacles created by the union during the negotiation process. Two months later, the union filed a two sentence complaint against the school committee regarding more or less the same circumstances, the central allegation of which was that “no substantive discussions had occurred.”
Despite the extensively documented submission of the School Committee regarding the Union’s behavior, the SLRB administratively dismissed this complaint. Yet the SLRB sustained the charges of the Union as deserving of a hearing, despite the fact that they do not detail any conduct by the School Committee that constitutes a “refusal to bargain.”
As if that didn’t raise obvious questions of bias, a month later, when the union filed on additional grounds, the Board broke all records of dispatch in forwarding the matter. In the three years prior to the East Providence case, it took an average of 148 days for a filed charge to be reviewed and an average of 319 days to get a hearing before the board. The Union’s charge from East Providence was approved in 36 days and will have a hearing in only 73. According to our research, the process has never moved this fast.
How the SLRB administrative decisions are made and why this case has been processed so much more quickly than any other will remain a mystery as discussions are held behind closed doors. It is easy to see why the public would be suspicious of the process given the apparent different treatment of labor and management interests in this case.
Cynicism about the responsiveness of government in Rhode Island is nothing new, but the Ocean State Policy Research Institute is committed to informed public discourse. Accordingly, we have earnestly undertaken to learn more about how the SLRB functions, who they are and how they make their decisions. We have examined the SLRB’s last three years of decisions for evidence of their prejudices, whatever they might be. The unmistakable conclusion one reaches is that the SLRB lacks transparency and they lean toward labor.
From 2006 to the present, the SLRB has heard 19 cases, seven of which we have determined to contain substantive rulings that impact management-labor interactions. Every one of those major cases was ruled in favor of labor. The total scorecard for the SLRB, including cases with minimal impact, is 15 wins for Labor and four wins for management.
While the board’s decisions are generally logically reasoned, that is different from saying that they are correctly decided. These kinds of decisions interpreting statutes, rules and regulations depend on analogy to previous results. The weight the Board places on these various precedents operates like a finger on the scale, and there can be no doubt it is tipping towards labor.
But don’t take our word for it. We have created the Labor Relations Board Watch website (www.lrbwatch.org) to house our research along with public information we obtain to provide transparency. It is time that everyone takes a close look at the SLRB and engages in reasoned debate to create pressure for reform. It would be naive at best to think that the board’s documented history of opaque behavior and perceptually biased decision making would change without intervention. We hope this website empowers citizens with the necessary information to let the Board members know that they are watching — a dynamic that is new to the SLRB. Gone will be the days that the Board pulls the economic strings of the public purse in virtual secrecy.
Bill Felkner is the president of the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, sponsor of the LRB Watch website and the Transparency Train public information portal.