Court will not read terms into collective bargaining agreement

As Missouri moves into full-scale collective bargaining with public employee unions there will be many questions concerning how the courts will interpret collective bargaining agreements between public employers and unions.  Most analysts concede that unions have the upper hand with respect to collective-bargaining agreements because unions have engaged in collective bargaining in the private sector for years and have had an opportunity to refine the language used in collective bargaining agreements.

Constitution requires negotiation in good faith

Constitution requires negotiation in good faith

Public employers in Missouri have had a limited range of experience negotiating under the Missouri Meet and Confer law, which did not apply to teachers and law enforcement officials nor did public employers have to bargain with unions in “good faith” until recently. It would seem that bargaining in good faith would require public employers to reduce the results of the bargaining to a written agreement. You can expect that the trench warfare between public employers and unions will most likely be fought over the terms and conditions in the collective bargaining agreement.

Western District Missouri Court of Appeals

Western District Missouri Court of Appeals

A recent decision by the Missouri Court of Appeals involving the Missouri Department of Corrections (Department) and the Missouri Corrections Officers Association (Association) provides the first glimpse of how the courts may interpret public sector collective-bargaining agreements in Missouri.  The Agreement between the Department and the Association provided that the Department reserved the right to direct its employees to conduct business as it sees fit, “except as modified by the terms of this Agreement.”  The Department retained the right to “hire, assign, reassign, transfer, promote and to determine hours of work and shifts and assign overtime.” It would appear that the Department did a good job by reserving management rights although as we will see that did not work out due to a major oversight in the Agreement.

Due to cuts in the budget the Department took steps to limit the amount of overtime by modifying the provisions relating to the use of compensatory time by adjusting schedules in midweek to prevent employees from using compensatory time as part of the calculation to compute overtime (hours over 40 hours per week are paid at 1 ½ times the hourly rate) thereby limiting the amount of overtime that an employee could accrue during a week.  The Department contended that if an employee works hours in excess of a shift earlier in that workweek it could reduce the employee’s hours later in the same week, thereby keeping the hours worked under 40 hours per week so that the employee would not be compensated for more than 40 hours. In order to carry out these changes the Department modified the Department Manual, which was not part of the Agreement by changing the Manual to allow administrators to prohibit employees from using State compensatory time in the calculation of overtime.  The Association contended that this change modified the terms of the Agreement, while the Department contended that the Agreement allowed the Department to direct its employees to conduct business as it sees fit and to determine hours of work and shifts and assign overtime.

The Association sued the Department and the trial court ruled for the Department, which decision was appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals held that in order to interpret the Agreement – as contended by the Department – it would have to read into the Agreement additional provisions. The Court refused to add additional provisions to the Agreement ruling for the Association on the overtime question. While the Court refused to read into the Agreement additional provisions it did rely upon documents outside the Agreement to interpret the meaning of undefined terms set forth in the Agreement based upon the Departments Manual.

While the Agreement on its face appeared to have retained management prerogatives it did not protect the state with respect reductions to in revenues.  When the Department had to reduce cost it ran headlong into the terms of the Agreement.  Obviously agreements between public employers and unions should contain provisions dealing with budget reductions and how cuts to the budget will be implemented.

What about the budget?

What about the budget?

For an earlier discussion of recent Missouri cases establishing the right of unions to engage in collective bargaining in Missouri  see my earlier Post  “Trilogy of Cases.”

Howard Wright @ 2014


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