All James Brown III wants is a stable job, and an opportunity to retire one day and live out the rest of his days with his wife.
But Brown, a telephony technician for Metro Nashville Public Schools, contends that recent moves by MNPS Director of Schools Jesse Register are making that dream more difficult to obtain.
“I took a pay cut to come to work here,” Brown said. “What I wanted was stability, not high pay. All I want to do is do my job to the best of my ability.”
A reworking of the service employees’ handbook and the discontinuation of union agreements has inflamed local union leaders who represent roughly 1,500 MNPS employees.
According to the United Steelworkers, which represents around 300 school transportation workers, problems started two years ago when Register recommended that bus drivers reduce their workday from eight to seven hours.
The USW employees packed the school board’s budget meeting, but the 12.5 percent pay cut — a $2.5 million savings for the school system — passed.
MNPS custodians were privately outsourced later in 2010, a major blow to the Service Employees International Union Local 205, which represents them.
Then, last month, while school was on winter break, Register informed local union officials from the USW and SEIU that they would no longer be operating under memoranda of understanding, effectively halting communications with the unions.
According to local USW president Jim Buckley, that decision “knocked the beehive off the roost.”
“To say there is discontent is an understatement, and that attitude is reflected in the bus drivers,” Buckley said.
Memoranda of understanding are legally nonbinding agreements that the school system previously used to communicate with unions. Buckley described the MOU relationship as working “as well as could be expected.” The word “negotiate” was off-limits, according to Buckley, but the unions enjoyed a “meet and confer” relationship with the school district.
The most recent MOU between the unions and Metro schools expired on June 30, 2011. A letter sent from MNPS chief operating officer Fred Carr to the USW and SEIU on June 15, 2011, expressed Register’s intent to enter into “significantly condensed” MOUs with the unions. Those discussions never materialized.
Instead, roughly six months later, Register advised Collier and Buckley that he and the school board’s “executive staff” decided to discontinue the MOUs entirely by deleting the school system’s Labor Negotiations Policy.
Register referenced Tennessee’s Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act, which was passed by the state legislature last year and replaced teachers’ collective bargaining rights with “collaborative conferencing.”
“For our future relationship with support employee unions to be mutually beneficial and productive, we must acknowledge the recent changes in state law,” Register wrote. “For instance, as a result of the Tennessee legislature enacting [PECCA], we will have a vastly different relationship [with] the teacher’s union, MNEA.
“In recognition of state law regarding teachers’ unions, and the non-binding nature of any MOU with support unions, my executive staff has met and voted to rescind HR 5.129, the Labor Negotiations Policy.”
The move didn’t go over well with SEIU Local 205 president Doug Collier.
“Dr. Register is now trying to use those laws — which do not apply to school support employees — as an excuse to overreach his authority and silence the voices of thousands of loyal city employees who voted to form a union,” Collier said in a press release.
The USW and SEIU sent complaint letters to Metro Board of Education Chairwoman Gracie Porter earlier this month.
MNPS officials declined to comment on the complaints and directed questions toward the school board. Messages left for Porter were unanswered as of press time.
MNPS provided The City Paper with an email that Register sent to school support staff employees. In it, he stated that the Steelworkers and SEIU will still be recognized as “a representative” of employees. Collier and Buckley said they took that phrase to mean the unions were no longer the “exclusive representative” of employees — a clear shot at the unions’ influence.
The SEIU complaint asks the board of education to revoke Register’s letter, inform employees that SEIU continues to operate and instruct Register to stop “distributions or communications to employees wrongly claiming that SEIU … is no longer employees’ exclusive representative.”
Brown is a member and chief steward of the SEIU Local 205. He doesn’t identify with the “combative” approach that unions sometimes take in regards to workers’ rights.
“I’d much rather cooperate than fight,” said Brown, who’s been working for MNPS in some capacity since 2003. “I believe if we work together, they won’t accidentally kick us, and we won’t accidentally kick them.”
And for Brown, the disagreement over MOUs is like “talking about a recipe when the stove’s broke.” To him, the bigger issue lies in repeated moves to limit the stability of service employees’ jobs.
For instance, in October 2011, the school system released a new school service employee handbook that featured major changes when it comes to filing grievances and job stability, according to Brown.
The biggest issue to him was the change that all service employees will have to reapply for their jobs each summer. The new handbook deleted a previous policy on “Automatic Reappointment Status.”
“Under the new handbook, I’m fired come June 30,” Brown said.
The SEIU Local 205 also pinpointed a change to the grievance policy, which eliminates a “challenge” procedure for written reprimands, as a major point of contention.
Brown said other service employees, even nonunion members, have expressed dissatisfaction over the latest developments.
Still, Register re-emphasized his appreciation of all school district employees.
“It is my sincere hope all employees will continue to work together to provide the best possible services to the children enrolled in our schools,” Register said in a letter to employees. “I value the hard working and dedicated support staff in our district and recognize that our successful operation depends on your efforts.”
But union leaders have made it clear they aren’t feeling the love. “I see my fellow co-workers being scared. That’s what I’m seeing,” Brown said.
Buckley said it’s time for the Steelworkers’ members to decide whether action needs to be taken.
“The [union members] have got to decide what they want to do or not to do,” Buckley said. “They’ve got to have the [drive] to perpetuate the change or re-establish the change they have achieved."