VLRB Concludes Hearing

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Thursday December 01, 2011

Board Awaits Ruling in Unfair Labor Practice Complaint

On November 21, the Vermont Labor Relations Board (VLRB) finished hearing the unfair labor practice complaint filed on May 23 by the South Burlington School Board against the South Burlington Educators Association (SBEA) and the Vermont National Education Association (VT-NEA). Attorneys have until December 5 to file proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law with the VLRB; a decision on the complaint will likely be issued a few weeks later.

The unfair labor practice case is based on events that took place earlier this year.

On February 16, after long and unsuccessful contract negotiations, the School Board imposed final conditions of teacher employment for the 2010-11 school year in accordance with the Board’s statutory authority. The SBEA then told the School Board that educators would hold a strike vote on March 2.

A few days before the scheduled strike vote, Joel Cook, executive director of the VT-NEA, SBEA’s parent organization, sent an e-mail to Richard Cassidy, an attorney and the Chair of the School Board. In his e-mail, Cook noted that Cassidy’s law firm, Hoff Curtis, described itself on its Labor & Employment webpage as “one of the few law firms in Vermont that represents labor unions.”

“At the bottom of that page,” Cook told Cassidy, “the only name mentioned is yours, and, as you know, your bio includes a listing of many unions you yourself have represented. To me, sitting atop one of the other ‘law firms’ that represents labor unions,” Cook continued, “ the immediate future appears to be one that includes labor unions picketing the offices of Phil Hoff and Dave Curtis, and, frankly, I don’t want that to happen.”

At the November 21 hearing, Cassidy said that he found Cook’s e-mail to be threatening. “The implication is: if you do not knuckle under to what I want, I’ll hurt you,” Cassidy testified. When asked how such hurt could be inflicted, Cassidy answered: “By arranging to have the union picket your offices—and that will cause your labor clients to stop using you.”

After receiving Cook’s e-mail, Cassidy had consulted the School District’s legal counsel. The School Board Members’ Code of Conduct requires members to “avoid conflicts of interest as well as the appearance of conflicts of interest.” The Code defines a conflict of interest as “a situation when a board member’s private interests, as distinguished from the board member’s interest as a member of the general public, could benefit from or be harmed by a board decision.” Cassidy says that, since his personal interests appeared to be involved, a conflict of interest had been created.

Based on the legal advice he received, Cassidy withdrew from any further voting or discussion regarding the imposition of a contract on South Burlington’s educators. Without Cassidy’s participation in any further negotiations, the School Board and the SBEA entered into a three-year agreement in March.

Two months later, the Board filed an unfair labor practice charge with the VRLB against the SBEA and VT-NEA. The charge specifically contends that Cook’s e-mail restrained or coerced the Board in its selection of collective bargaining representatives and constituted a refusal to bargain collectively in good faith.

After hearing testimony on October 20 and November 21, the VLRB took the matter under advisement.

The VLRB members are: Richard Park, Chair; Gary Karnedy; and James Kiehle.

SOURCE: Bill Wargo, Correspondent