Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers & Scientists v. Labor Relations Com'n

Decision Date15 August 1983
Citation389 Mass. 920,452 N.E.2d 1117
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Nathan S. Paven, Quincy, for Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers & Scientists.

John B. Cochran, Boston, for Labor Relations Com'n.

Sandra C. Quinn, Boston, for Massachusetts Teachers Ass'n, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.


NOLAN, Justice.

Two cases are consolidated here for appeal. In the first case, the plaintiff, Massachusetts Organization of State Engineers and Scientists (MOSES or the union), appeals the decision of the Labor Relations Commission (commission) that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Office of Employee Relations (Commonwealth), a public employer, did not violate its duty to participate in good faith in fact-finding when it instituted unilateral changes in work rules before completion of fact-finding. In the second case, MOSES appeals from the commission's dismissal of complaints whereby MOSES alleged that the Commonwealth had refused to arbitrate certain disputes and to bargain concerning the effect of layoffs of certain employees. The appeals were originally filed in the Appeals Court pursuant to G.L. c. 150E, § 11, as amended through St.1981, c. 351, § 245, and consolidated there. We then transferred the cases here on our own motion. We find no error in either case.

The issues are essentially questions of law. For that reason we will recite only those facts found by the commission that are necessary to frame properly the issues. MOSES and the Commonwealth were parties to a collective bargaining agreement which ran from July 1, 1977, through June 30, 1980. Article 29 of that document provided that "[s]hould a successor agreement not be executed by July 1, 1980, this Agreement shall remain in full force and effect until a successor agreement is executed or an impasse in negotiations is reached." Although negotiations began in April, 1980, 1 no successor agreement was executed by July 1, 1980. The parties continued negotiations informally. On August 6, MOSES petitioned the Board of Conciliation and Arbitration (board) for mediation pursuant to G.L. c. 150E, § 9. Walter Diehl, the mediator appointed by the board, presided over a number of meetings between the parties but negotiations were stalemated. On September 16, Diehl declared an impasse and certified the matter for fact-finding under § 9. On October 20, the board appointed Robert M. O'Brien as fact-finder. 2

On November 17, Diehl presided over a meeting between the parties. The Commonwealth presented Diehl with a number of "work rules" which Diehl then conveyed to MOSES. These "work rules," some of which were to go into effect that day, limited the rights which union representatives had previously enjoyed under the contract to attend collective bargaining sessions and other related proceedings without loss of pay, and they modified language in certain articles of the contract. 3 MOSES conceded at oral argument that the changes brought about in the "work rules" were in conformance with the Commonwealth's previous bargaining stance. 4

Sometime after the November 17 meeting, MOSES submitted to Diehl "an alternative economic offer." It is unclear whether Diehl ever conveyed this offer to the Commonwealth. In any event, nothing came of it. Fact-finding began on December 29.

MOSES brought charges against the Commonwealth in January, 1981, for its failure to bargain and to participate in good faith in fact-finding as required by G.L. c. 150E, § 10 (a ) (5) & (6). Following investigation, the commission issued a complaint. After a hearing, a majority of the three-member commission panel ruled that the unilateral changes were lawful because impasse had been reached. One panel member dissented. MOSES timely appealed.

In February, 1981, the Commonwealth announced its decision to lay off employees in the Department of Public Health (DPH). MOSES filed a grievance contending that the Commonwealth had used incorrect seniority credits in determining which employees were to be laid off. Unsuccessful in the grievance procedure, MOSES requested arbitration. The Commonwealth refused on the ground that there was no arbitration agreement in effect between the parties.

In June, 1981, according to plans developed by the State and Federal governments, other employees of the DPH were to be transferred to the Executive Office of Human Services (EOHS). MOSES requested EOHS to bargain concerning the impact of these transfers on the seniority rights of its members. Although meetings between the parties were held, no bargaining took place and the transfers became final in July, 1981.

MOSES brought charges in June, 1981, against the Commonwealth before the commission for the Commonwealth's refusal to arbitrate the layoffs and to bargain concerning the transfers. After a hearing in September, 1981, the commission's panel unanimously ruled that the Commonwealth's duty to arbitrate and to bargain expired when it had bargained to impasse. MOSES timely appealed.

1. The unilateral changes. MOSES contends that the commission's decision upholding the unilateral changes is wrong as a matter of law because the decision was based on a misinterpretation of the Commonwealth's obligation to bargain collectively and to participate in good faith in fact-finding under G.L. c. 150E, § 10 (a ) (5) & (6). MOSES argues that the statutorily-sanctioned fact-finding procedures are an integral part of the public sector negotiating process and that, therefore, an impasse which would permit a public employer to initiate unilateral changes cannot legally occur prior to the completion of fact-finding. In essence, MOSES' position is that the Commonwealth's implementation of unilateral changes prior to the completion of fact-finding represented a per se violation of its obligation under G.L. c. 150E, § 10 (a )(5) & (6). 5 MOSES acknowledges that a private sector employer may implement unilateral changes after impasse, see NLRB v. Katz, 369 U.S. 736, 741-742, 82 S.Ct. 1107, 1110-1111, 8 L.Ed.2d 230 (1962), but asserts that a public employer should not be allowed to do so, as a matter of policy, for it would then hold an unfair economic advantage over public employees who, unlike their private sector counterparts, are forbidden by law to strike. See G.L. c. 150E, § 9A.

The issue raised here concerns the legal effect of the fact-finding procedures established by G.L. c. 150E, § 9, upon the Commonwealth's obligation under § 10(a )(5) & (6). 6 This is essentially a question of statutory interpretation. There can be no doubt that "[t]he duty of statutory interpretation is for the courts." Cleary v. Cardullo's, Inc., 347 Mass. 337, 344, 198 N.E.2d 281 (1964). However, we are constrained by statute to "give due weight to the experience, technical competence, and specialized knowledge of the agency," G.L. c. 30A, § 14, as amended through St.1976, c. 411. In addition, ordinary precepts of statutory construction instruct us to accord deference to an administrative interpretation of a statute. School Comm. of Wellesley v. Labor Relations Comm'n, 376 Mass. 112, 116, 379 N.E.2d 1077 (1978). Application of these principles is especially significant "where, as here, an agency must interpret a legislative policy which is only broadly set out in the governing statute." School Comm. of Springfield v. Board of Educ., 362 Mass. 417, 442, 287 N.E.2d 438 (1972).

There is nothing in any of the relevant statutes which would specifically allow or prohibit the Commonwealth's implementation of unilateral changes prior to the completion of fact-finding. We have examined the legislative history of the relevant statutes and we find it to be inconclusive. 7 In this context, we turn to the commission's interpretation and application of the statute.

Relying on NLRB v. Katz, 369 U.S. 736, 82 S.Ct. 1107, 8 L.Ed.2d 230 (1962), the commission adopted, as early as 1974, the general rule that "an employer may not lawfully change the wages, hours, or working conditions of his organized workers without negotiating with their union," in cases involving public employers. Town of North Andover, 1 M.L.C. 1103, 1106 (1974). See also Town of Marblehead, 1 M.L.C. 1141, 1144-1145 (1974); Boston School Comm., 3 M.L.C. 1603, 1605 (1977). In City of Boston, 3 M.L.C. 1450 (1977), the commission ruled that the city of Boston had violated its obligation to negotiate in good faith when it unilaterally changed its policy of allowing representatives of the policemen's and the firefighters' unions time off with pay for union business. In that case, however, the policemen's union had indicated its willingness to reopen negotiations after impasse had been declared and the city had not previously proposed eliminating time off to the firefighters' union. The commission, in dictum, noted that "[t]he National Labor Relations Board and the Courts have held that, where a legitimate impasse exists, the employer may make unilateral changes in working conditions. But, those cases emphasize that the change[s] must be consistent with the employer's bargaining position" (footnote omitted). Id. at 1463.

The question whether a public employer could implement unilateral changes during impasse was squarely presented to the commission in Hanson School Comm., 5 M.L.C. 1671 (1979). There, the Hanson school committee unilaterally abolished a twelve-month guidance counselor's position and then recreated the position on a ten-month basis. The action was taken during mediation sessions three months prior to the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between the parties. The mediator had made no formal declaration of impasse. The commission held that the unilateral change was justified because the bargaining history of ...

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