The Hartford Federation of Teachers (HFT) was denied the ability to arbitrate a grievance over disciplinary action taken against a long-time physical education teacher because they waited six months before filing for arbitration, according to a recent arbitration decision.
HFT initially filed grievances on behalf of John Grande, which were denied by the Hartford school system, but refused to move to arbitration because he wasn’t a dues-paying union member.
Grande, who was issued a letter of reprimand after two of his colleagues complained about his reaction to mandatory training on “privilege” in 2020, filed an unfair labor practice charge against HFT, claiming they did not fairly represent him.
The Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Janus v. AFSCME acknowledged that unions must represent all employees equally, regardless of whether they are dues-paying members because the unions insist on being the exclusive representative of those employees.
Representatives for HFT claimed they were unaware of the duty of fair representation at the time because the union was under new leadership following a 2020 union election which saw a changing of the board.
According to the arbitration decision, HFT “was not aware that non-Federation employees of the bargaining unit were entitled to the arbitration process even when they do not pay dues or an agency fee.”
HFT only filed for arbitration after Grande’s unfair labor practice charge but, according to the decision by arbitrator Gerald T. Weiner, six months elapsed between the second grievance denial and the union’s filing for arbitration. Under HFT’s contract, the union must file for arbitration within 10 days.
HFT also argued that there were “extenuating circumstances” in the case, claiming “significant delays” by the employer, including delays in gathering testimony and investigating the issue, and that the employer is not time-bound like the union.
Weiner, however, sided with the Hartford Board of Education in denying HFT’s move toward arbitration, leaving the union on the hook for the unfair labor practice charge.
“While the arbitrator is sympathetic and understanding of the Federation’s position, this decision must be controlled by the clear and unambiguous language of the [collective bargaining agreement],” Weiner wrote.
Grande’s attorney, Nathan McGrath of the Fairness Center, says they have now submitted the denial to support their action against HFT.
“Connecticut law is very clear that public-sector unions must fairly represent all employees in a bargaining unit, regardless of their union membership status,” McGrath said. “We have submitted the arbitrator’s determination to the state labor board to support John’s allegation that the union failed in its duty of fair representation by discriminating against him for being a nonmember.”
Grande said the decision was unsurprising due to the six-month delay by the union and went on to label the discipline taken against him by the Hartford school system as a “witch hunt.”
“I’m sure this decision created a sigh of relief for some Hartford district administrators,” Grande said. “At least for the moment, they have a reprieve from having to answer for the way they conducted themselves during this witch hunt. I look forward to the state board of labor’s decision. It’s time for union and district officials to be held accountable.”
According to the arbitrator’s decision, the Hartford Board of Education issued a written reprimand to Grande after an October 28, 2020, professional development session: “The Board determined that Grievant made inappropriate and unprofessional comments in a group discussion during the Professional Development resulting in making staff members uncomfortable.”
Grande contends that he did nothing wrong. In an op-ed published by the Hartford Courant, Grande says that following an online training about “Identity & Privilege,” he was assigned to a breakout room with several other teachers and asked to give his opinion. “So I gave it, honestly and professionally,” Grande wrote.
“Apparently because I disagreed with the training’s implications, two teachers complained. Months later the administration informed me I was under investigation,” Grande wrote. Grande says he was issued a written reprimand and required to undergo further sensitivity training under threat of termination.
Grande had been a HFT union member most of his career and says he helped negotiate contracts but resigned from the union in 2018.