Metro Schools ends agreement with unions, straining relationships in the wake

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 10:05pm

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."

22 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 1/25/12 at 5:21

Mr. Brown while stating "he doesn't like confrontation" goes on to
do just that with his threat of a call for action. While Unions have
every right in the private enterprise work places, those working
for governments (public service) should not be allowed. Public
sentiment has long felt this way, but have been forced by far too
many politicians wanting those votes and donations to object.
The realizations of just how destructive and expensive these
Unions have heaped upon the taxpayers is now fully realized
and the proper actions to eliminate these problems are
rightfully being taken!

By: Rasputin72 on 1/25/12 at 7:47

The unions do not understand that all of America is taking a cut in their standard of living except the 1%. The United States has reached equality with the rest of the world.

By: Rasputin72 on 1/25/12 at 7:47

The unions do not understand that all of America is taking a cut in their standard of living except the 1%. The United States has reached equality with the rest of the world.

By: Moonglow1 on 1/25/12 at 8:28

Moonglow1: All public employees have the right to be represented through collective bargaining. This action by Register has nothing to do with pay but everything to do with outsourcing public jobs to the private sector. The public is being fooled. This is part of a national agenda. I hope these employees walk off the job. This group of Tea Nut Zealots are over the top and must be stopped. I hope the unions can fight this action legally somehow.

TN does not understand the role of unions because they have been brainwashed into thinking it is only about money. It is not. It is about protecting employee rights. Why is everyone taking a pay cut? Why are companies not hiring and making record profits? Why are the 1 percent not hiring\where is that tickle down effect? Why do the 1 percent hide their money off shore? Because they can. And they want the American worker to accept the working conditions of the Chinese. They want slave labor. That is how greedy these Tea Nuts are and your rights are being eliminated.

By: pswindle on 1/25/12 at 9:10

And Dr. Register has been given a longer contract. Help us all.

By: morpheus120 on 1/25/12 at 9:19

Rasputin - while I enjoy smacking around the 1% who have wrecked our country as much as the next guy, this whole issue has absolutely nothing at all to do with money or budgets.

This is clearly a power-grab by Jesse Register, a carpetbagging Republican who has an employment contract with job security but doesn't think anyone else should have one.

Why our "Democratic" school board is letting this anti-worker wingnut get away with this is beyond me. They've basically decided to spend their time getting wined and dined and get free trips to China and New York instead of taking any responsibility over the schools that THEY WERE ELECTED to oversee. Do they not know that Jesse Register works for them, not the other way around?

Guess it wouldn't be so bad if Register was delivering good test scores. But we know how that's been going...

Can't wait for the school board elections in the summer. The first candidate that tells me they're laying off Jesse Register will get my vote and my money.

By: Moonglow1 on 1/25/12 at 1:27

Moonglow1: Why can't we get our act together like WI did and recall these people that think they are kings. People like Register do not realize that the public actually has the power to recall non performing, egotistical, self important, greedy elected officials from office.

We need a national media spotlight on TN to expose these idiots. When they do make news as the laughing stock of the world as in bring back "intelligent design aka Scopes Monkey's" then they run and hide. I always say when you shine the light cockroaches run for cover.

By: BigPapa on 1/25/12 at 2:15

Wow- overreact much?
Bus driver, not exactly the most rarest of skill sets, MNPS shouldn't be hamstrung when hiring these people.

By: jsabrown on 1/25/12 at 8:48

I am the James Brown interviewed by Mr. Greenberg for this article.

Govskeptic, should read more carefully. I did not speak of a "call to action." He appears to have confused me with with Mr. Buckley, who merely stated "it’s time for the Steelworkers’ members to decide whether action needs to be taken."

And that's absolutely true. Now that Dr. Register has made clear he has no interest in acting in accord with BoE policy and is treating the Steelworkers and the SEIU with open hostility, we do need to decide how we're going to respond.

I don't want to fight. If Jesse Register will stop this nonsense and follow BoE policy, I'll sit down with him tomorrow! Heck, I'll spring for the coffee! I want MNPS to be a good place to work with happy, well-managed employees that are serious about the education of Nashville's young people! I just want him to stop beatin' on us!

We told this bully we didn't want to fight and we have worked very hard to be nice. Both the Steelworkers and the SEIU have worked for nearly a year to resolve this issue quietly and amicably, and Dr. Register has stonewalled, deceived, and outright lied to us at every turn. Now that the bully has openly begun to wail on us, should we just sit down and take it?

These are real problems. One of my members called me when the new handbook came out and said her supervisor had "gleefully" informed her and her coworkers they would no longer have a 15 minute break in the afternoon. When my member asked what she should do if she needed to go to the bathroom, the manager told her, "you're just going to have to hold it." This is the atmosphere this man is creating in our schools.

I really don't understand people who assert that government employees should have no right to organize. As if we are second-class citizens who have no right to have any say in the condition of our labor. As if we should be content to be treated as disposable, to be discarded at will at the end of June to make way for some high-level administrator's favorite cousin.

Dr. Register has already shown his stripes. When he outsourced the custodians, he reassured the hesitant, saying the chosen contractor would offer similar pay and benefits. In reality, the custodians took massive pay cuts, and their "benefits" are laughable. When later asked about this, Register's proxy was heard to say, "those aren't our employees and we have no say in how they're treated."

The really sad part is that whatever money Dr. Register managed to save on that deal was matched by the increase in city services that resulted from all those Nashville citizens being shoved into poverty. It didn't save the taxpayers a dime when he ruined the lives of 700 Nashville families.

And just think about this. In my job as a telephone and VoIP specialist, I'm not only required to have the technology skills that anyone in this role would have in the private sector, but I'm also required to have a squeaky-clean legal and driving record. I am, after all, being trusted to work around Nashville's children. A fair number of MNPS job offerings are withdrawn when the candidate can't pass the background check. Under rules of the holy market, that should make me a rarer and more valuable commodity, suggesting I should be paid MORE than my counterpart in the private sector. Yet somehow I'm not.

Nonetheless, Govskeptic thinks I should have LESS say in my job.

By: jsabrown on 1/25/12 at 9:05

Again, I am the James Brown interviewed by Mr. Greenberg for this article.

I should like to make a small correction in Mr. Greenberg's story. It is not so that I will have to "re-apply" for my job every year. Rather, under the new handbook, my job is presumed to terminate at the end of every fiscal year, unless I receive specific notice that my job will be continued the following year.

This is a change from the previous policy that said I was presumed to be recalled unless told otherwise. Unless Dr. Register really intends to eliminate thousands of jobs each year, this implies that the district will be forced to provide notice to thousands of people regarding the continuance of their employment, rather than only to the few whose job would be ended. To me, more than being distressing to me as an employee, this causes unnecessary work for BoE staff, who now must ensure that everyone who is to be recalled is provided sufficient notice.

It may be that I inadvertently gave Mr. Greenberg the wrong impression in that detail. Such wasn't my intention, and I apologize to him if I caused confusion.

By: jsabrown on 1/25/12 at 9:16

Big Papa, school bus driver is indeed a rare skill set. It requires the person to have a commercial driver's license, a pristine driving record, and an unblemished criminal record to boot. In circumstances where they are transporting special-needs children, further skills are required.

MNPS has a fleet of over 550 buses. We need hundreds of those people.

The 15% pay cut Dr. Register forced on those people two years ago provoked many bus drivers to quit outright, and MNPS has since struggled to hire replacements, even in the current economy.

By: govskeptic on 1/26/12 at 5:33

jsabrown: I'm sorry you feel you and your Union, the ever important SEIU, should
have more to say about your job than your employer. While that is always
the position of Union members, it just not the way the real world works.
Demands for never ending grievance procedures and time wasting hearings
even on something as simple as a written reprimand is a case in point.

Tennessee is a right to work state, if that comes as a surprise, please check
out what that entails. Being a union member doesn't supercede that act nor
should it for employees paid by the public taxpayers. Bullying and threats of
certain actions nor distorted info thrown into the press stopped being very
affective years ago.

By: jsabrown on 1/26/12 at 7:47

Well, govskeptic, I'm certain Dr. Register is glad to know you stand with him against the tyranny of a 60 y/o woman's need for a restroom break.

By: Moonglow1 on 1/26/12 at 9:41

Moonglow1: govskeptic is brainwashed by his friends at Fox who want the nation to believe that the private sector is always more efficient and cost effective. Well no that is not true. Also govskeptic (whether he knows it or not) is a union beneficiary: benefits, 40 hour work week, etc. And what about the comment we should not question our bosses. Really?? So it has come to this in the USA: work for slave wages. Put up or shut up. You have no rights. Well h-ll, our so called Corporate Kings treat the Communist Chinese worker better than that.

This us against them mentality is so destructive. We should value employees. I worked for private companies which were performing (outsourced federal govt work). No we were not more cost effective. The govt could have done the work more effectively but because our lawmakers sold this concept (private sector is always better) outsourcing became the model. Our Congress is bought and paid for by Corporate Kings.

By: Moonglow1 on 1/26/12 at 10:21

There are several articles in today's NYT (New York Times) about workers in China which provides a preview of the plight of labor in a USA without unions.

By: morpheus120 on 1/26/12 at 2:02

Govskeptic says: "while Unions have every right in the private enterprise work places, those working for governments (public service) should not be allowed. Public sentiment has long felt this way".

Like most conservatives, Govskeptic is either stupid or lying. There were several polls last year asking people whether they thought that public employees should have collective bargaining rights. Solid majorities in every poll - no matter how the question was worded - showed that they supported public employees' right to organize and join unions. Even a slim majority of Republicans agreed with that.

Here's the links to three different polls that were done on this topic Gov, if you're man enough to handle the truth:

By: pswindle on 1/26/12 at 2:05

Are we going to take this and not fight back? Can we not get organized and show our strength?

By: tdterry1999 on 1/27/12 at 9:06

Maybe if the unions was more worried about the workers instead of being in the pockets of democrats ,they would still be around.

By: morpheus120 on 1/27/12 at 9:32

Unions endorse Republicans all the time, tdterry. Well, not all the time. Just when they support working people. And generally speaking, Republicans don't do that anymore. What cave have you been living in for the last 30 years?

By: tdterry1999 on 1/27/12 at 3:57

Well morpheus I haven't been living in a cave.Maybe you should come out of the house and look around.Oh I don't care for the republicans either.Do you really think the dems look out for the working people?I'll wait for your answer.

By: spooky24 on 1/28/12 at 6:17

My question is what does any of this have to do with improving the worst school system in the state. and one of the worst in the south.
The facts don't lie(they may hide behind a flood now and then) Surely you recall no one wanted the job-Dr Register was begged to come here! Remember the first 6 candidates wanted nothing to do with what MNS has become and turned it down.
Need to abolish the entire school board and appoint professionals-and pay them correctly to do what gets worse every year. Have you ever watched a school board meeting? Do an Elvis when he saw Robert Goulet Boom boom!-it's embarssing.
Drop out rate 18%(after we cooked it-it's really 21) No problem our janitors are happy so everything is fine.


By: thinking12 on 2/27/12 at 8:46

Does "while school was on winter break" give any indication of his motives?

If his intentions were honorable and transparent why did he wait till all employees affected were not at work?
I am so sorry he was the only and last choice for this job-like most of the politicians in America he is clueless to what an average American has to do to make ends meet.

(jsabrown: I'm sorry you feel you and your Union, the ever important SEIU, should
have more to say about your job than your employer. By: govskeptic on 1/26/12 at 5:33)

Govskeptic are you aware of the needless and wasteful spending that goes on everyday at this school "corporation".....obviously not by your above comment. Most drivers do and cannot even suggest changes or heaven forbid "improvements" without hearing "just do it".

How about the GPS systems on the buses are they working yet?
How about rounding time worked up or down by the half hour?
How about all the NCLB and Hero money---What has it improved or are we still hearing the same improvements need to be made that had already been noted in a report in 2007.

It's not about "having more to say about your job than your employer" it's about being a taxpayer in Davidson County and seeing most of it go to schools that are failing and a system that thinks the money will never end because it holds everyone hostage by saying "if you want your child to succeed" we need more money to educate them.
You ever hear them say -we have enough money now we are going to do our job?