County’s Letter About Bargaining Goes Over The Line

Jackson County, Michigan and the Police Officers’ Association of Michigan (POAM) were parties to a collective bargaining agreement that expired on December 31, 2001. When they were unable to reach an agreement, POAM invoked interest arbitration under Michigan law.

During the arbitration process, the County proposed a settlement that included a retroactive wage increase for bargaining unit members. When POAM rejected the settlement, the County mailed letters to bargaining unit members notifying them of the offer. Each letter contained the County’s proposal, including the percentage increase for each year of the contract, as well as the approximate amount that the employee would receive in retroactive pay if POAM accepted the offer.

The County’s letter concluded with the statement that “with the rejection of this last settlement offer, the arbitration process will continue. This laborious process will take a long time and cost both sides money. The outcome could be significantly different from the one you have read above. There are no guarantees in this process! We believe this offer is fair and ask that all members of the unit review it carefully before we commit to continued arbitration.”

After receiving the letter, nearly all of the members of the bargaining unit contacted the president of POAM’s local in Jackson County. POAM responded by filing an unfair labor practice charge, contending that the County’s letter constituted impermissible “direct dealing.”

Michigan’s Employment Relations Commission found the County guilty of an unfair labor practice. The Commission noted that “although it is not an unfair labor practice for an employer to communicate factual information disclosing its position in bargaining, the practice is not without risk. A union’s duty of representation runs to the bargaining unit as a whole. To tailor bargaining to the needs or expectations of individual bargaining unit members invites the formation of self-centered constituencies and mitigates against the success of good faith bargaining.”

The Commission concluded that to be legal, an employer’s communications to bargaining unit members about the bargaining process must be “non-coercive.” In the Commission’s view, a “coercive” communication was one that would “inhibit or interfere with the exercise of rights guaranteed by the law. Employer communications regarding collective bargaining are allowed to the extent that they constitute a fair share of information with individual bargaining unit members. They are not allowed if they constitute direct bargaining and derogation of the obligation to bargain with a duly-authorized bargaining representative.”

The Commission found that the County’s letter crossed the line into the area of coerciveness. The Commission concluded that the County’s letter “disparaged POAM’s exercise of the statutory right to invoke interest arbitration. By personalizing its rejected wage offer and characterizing the arbitration process as costly, laborious and time consuming, the County attempted to persuade individual bargaining unit members that the representation afforded them by POAM was inappropriate and that the acceptance of the County’s offer would better serve their interests. By dealing in this manner with the individuals represented by POAM, the County engaged in prohibited direct bargaining.”

Jackson County and Police Officers’ Association of Michigan, 18 MPER ¶22 (Mich. ERC 2005).

This article appears in the August 2005 issue