The Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations recently issued a decision, Region 16 Board of Education, Decision No. 4270 (2007), in which it held that a unilateral change in the workload of Special Education Teachers constituted a prohibited practice. In doing so, the Board created an exception to the general rule that a unit wide fixed practice must be demonstrated in order for a union to establish a unilateral change based upon prior practice.
Generally, it is an unfair labor practice for an employer to change a term or condition of employment in the face of a unit wide fixed past practice. Accordingly, where there has been a mixed practice, unions have been hard pressed to prove a violation.
In the Region 16 case, the School District was faced with an increase in the workload of certain Special Education Teachers as a result of the resignation of another Special Education Teacher. The Labor Board rejected the employer’s argument that past practice must be viewed on a unit wide basis. This had long been the understanding in Connecticut. Citing the fact that Special Education Teachers’ working conditions differ substantially from those of other teachers, the Labor Board looked at Special Education Teachers as a stand alone class for purposes of evaluating a change in the past practice. After doing so, it found that the workload of the teachers had increased substantially, notwithstanding that the teachers were all afforded the contractually required preparation and lunch period.
It is not yet clear how far will be the reach of the Region 16 decision. For instance, if a certain class of teachers, such as elementary library teachers, have a lesser workload than other elementary teachers, then their workload is increased to match that of other elementary teachers, does this require bargaining? That question was not answered by the Labor Board in Region 16, however, one could certainly see Teachers’ Unions advancing such an argument. In light of the decision, School Boards should consult with their counsel prior to expanding the workload of teachers other than in a truly de minimis sense in order to make sure it does not run afoul of Region 16 or any progeny which follow.