A recent story from FoxNews.com, about a Massachusetts teacher who was denied additional paid leave to welcome home her son who was wounded in Afghanistan, illustrates a point of which many union members often lose sight when forming unions. Union officials and members often are quick to argue that unions – and collective bargaining agreements – are necessary in order to prevent employers from being able to change the terms and conditions of employment unilaterally, or to prevent employers from providing certain employees with benefits or working conditions that are better than others.
In union organizing campaigns, however, I always argue that this rigid agreement can have unintended consequences that may be less than desirable for the employees. In other words, giving employers the flexibility to treat different situations differently can actually be beneficial for employees.
In this case, the collective bargaining agreement provides for nine days of paid leave, which the employee had already exhausted. She asked for three additional paid days to visit with her step-son who is returning from battle, and she was denied her request. The school district’s stated reason for denying the request is that the CBA did not provide for any additional paid leave.
Let me absolutely clear about one thing – the stated purpose for this leave is something upon which we should place significant value and honor. If there is a way this employee could be permitted to take time for this purpose, it would benefit all to seek it.
Let me also be clear about one other thing, though – the requested leave could not just be given by the district without causing the district to violate the law.
If the contract provides for a fixed number of paid leave days, then giving any more would be an illegal unfair labor practice just as it would be so to permit fewer. If there is a bad guy here, it is not necessarily the district. The problem here is that the rigidity ensured by a collective bargaining agreement is just that – rigid. Employees and unions need to remember that this goes both ways.
Now, are there ways to accomplish this leave? Sure. Some exception could be carved out with permission of the union AND the board, but again that is not a decision that the board is permitted to make. Also, there likely would be unpaid leave available pursuant to recent amendments to the FMLA.
While I absolutely sympathize with the difficulty created for this employee by the collective bargaining agreement in effect, it is important to understand the source of problems like the one here – it is the rigidity of the CBA, rather than intentionally unwilling employers.
NOTE: My analysis is based, of course, on the facts as reported in the article, and I have not conducted an independent review of the CBA at issue.