The state has ruled that the Community Colleges of Spokane engaged in unfair labor practices by hiring private workers for some tasks and making it difficult for union members to get information needed for negotiations.
In its June 30 ruling, the Public Employment Relations Commission ordered CCS to stop subcontracting out several jobs, to allow the union to bargain over any work done by private employees, and to stop “obstructing” union requests for information.
“I think it’s a strong statement that the state at all levels needs to negotiate about contracting out” labor, said Tim Welch, director of public affairs for the Washington Federation of State Employees.
Greg Stevens, chief human resources officer with CCS, said that most of the issues raised in the decision had already been admitted and fixed by the colleges, and that they arose from confusion over previous state laws governing when work can be contracted out to private workers rather than using the colleges’ unionized employees.
A PERC examiner found the schools illegally used private laborers to clean grease traps, repair hinges and springs, and work on heating and air conditioning systems and construction projects in 2004 and 2005.
The examiner also found that CCS had engaged in skimming – or moving some jobs to employees outside of the bargaining unit that has historically done the work – and that it unfairly changed the rules on releasing information to the union, requiring them to fill out formal requests and reacting defensively when the union objected.
The examiner, David Gedrose, noted that the recent dispute between the Spokane college system and the WFSE was part of a contentious history.
“The parties have been fighting over subcontracting for at least 30 years,” the report notes in its conclusion. “This case has been another instance of that disputatious relationship.”
Stevens acknowledged that relations have been rough between the administration and union over the issue, but he said the atmosphere had improved among union members at the colleges – if not among the state and regional employees of WFSE.
“We’ve really improved the working relationship with our stewards, in particular, and with the general membership,” he said.
But a contentious relationship still exists among WFSE employees and leadership, he said. “When they become involved we lose an opportunity to work collaboratively on issues,” he said.
Welch said the union was acting at its members’ behest by bringing complaints about the issues.
“We take our marching orders from the people there currently doing the work,” he said. “We’re not marching ahead of our members in this case.”
Stevens said most of the college’s mistakes centered on confusion over potentially contradictory elements of previous state laws governing subcontracting. The law used to prohibit subcontracting work that was regularly done by employees – but allowed it on “public works projects.” Schools and their unions have clashed regularly over different interpretations of those provisions.
Last July, however, new laws took effect that grant state agencies more latitude in contracting out work, but Stevens emphasized that CCS had not changed its practices or expanded its use of subcontracted workers.
And the PERC ruling made it clear that “subcontracting remains a mandatory subject of bargaining. An employer’s duty to give notice and bargain, upon request, remains the same.”