Head Start workers at the E Center scored a major victory last week when the National Labor Relations Board ruled in their favor after the employer refused to ratify a tentative agreement and instead imposed unilateral changes to reduce pay and benefits.
The NLRB ordered management to stop refusing to bargain in good faith, to return spring break to its customary length, and to rescind changes to its health plan, provide the union with the information it requested, and make employees whole for lost wages and benefits caused by the unilateral changes.
The decision benefits more than 400 SEIU 1021 members who work at E Center locations throughout northern California. That includes not just Head Start teachers, but family service workers and advocates, health and nutrition specialists, drivers, teacher and transportation aides, and clerical and maintenance workers. They serve not just local resident families but the families of migrant farm workers.
In their complaint, the workers charged the agency with “unilaterally altering its past practice by increasing the length of spring break closure for its Head Start facilities from 5 to 10 days, by unilaterally changing bargaining unit employees’ health benefits and by refusing and unreasonably delaying in providing information … necessary and relevant” to bargaining.
The case is clear
It clearly violates the National Labor Relations Act for an employer to make such unilateral changes during the course of bargaining — except in unusual circumstances. Management could have extended spring break, for instance, in case of an economic emergency beyond its control or not reasonably foreseeable.
But that’s not what happened. “It is clear that [E Center’s] own mismanagement of its budgetary process caused its economic dilemma,” the NLRB concluded, citing “faulty and inappropriate assumptions” in its grant proposals and its “past illegal practice” of transferring funds between programs, which “caused lax oversight of its budgets and further contributed to its fiscal problems. Thus, the record is clear that the budget shortfall … was self-inflicted, within its own control and therefore foreseeable.”
Negotiations ran for more than a year —June 2012 through August 2013 — and union members ratified the TA before the end of September. But then the E Center’s new CEO discovered the agency was operating at a large deficit, and the board of directors failed to ratify the agreement. Management announced the unilateral changes just before Thanksgiving; they took effect just before spring break earlier this year.