September 27, 2007

Re: Information or Poor Bargaining Practice?

Justin Katz

Having investigated the laws cited in the complaint against Bill Felkner, I'm reasonably confident that I'm either missing something or somebody else is misstating something. In his Westerly Sun article (subscription required), Chris Keegan wrote the following (emphasis added):

In a letter to the Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board filed on Thursday, Peter Gingras accused Felkner of circumventing negotiations between the committee and NEA Chariho Educational Support Professionals — the union representing 166 support staffers employed by the tri-town school district. Gingras' two-page complaint centers on Felkner's public communications through his Internet blog — the Chariho School Parent’s Forum ( — and names the Chariho Regional School District as a party to the labor grievance.

However, the the textual explanation of the complaint doesn't refer to the blog:

On or about September 14, 2007, and on dates thereafter, an agent of the Chariho Regional School District has purposely attempted to communicate directly with bargaining unit members represented by the union.

The purpose of these communications was to discourage union membership and is tantamount to a refusal to bargain with the certified representative of the union.

If the blog is the "communication," then it's a bit of a stretch to call it "direct." Indeed, the first two subsections of the unfair labor practices law cited by the complaint are plainly inapplicable to blogs, and the third — a legal catch-all — is still (again) a stretch:

(5) Encourage membership in any company union or discourage membership in any labor organization, by discrimination in regard to hire or tenure or in any term or condition of employment; provided that nothing in this chapter precludes an employer from making an agreement with a labor organization requiring membership in that labor organization as a condition of employment, if that labor organization is the representative of employees as provided in §§ 28-7-14 – 28-7-19.

(6) Refuse to bargain collectively with the representatives of employees, subject to the provisions of §§ 28-7-14 – 28-7-19, except that the refusal to bargain collectively with any representative is not, unless a certification with respect to the representative is in effect under §§ 28-7-14 – 28-7-19, an unfair labor practice in any case where any other representative, other than a company union, has made a claim that it represents a majority of the employees in a conflicting bargaining unit. ...

(10) Do any acts, other than those already enumerated in this section, which interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed by § 28-7-12.

The only way in which Felkner's blog violated 28-7-12 is if there was "coercion," and a quick perusal of the blog posts around the time of the complaint didn't reveal anything that could reasonably be interpreted thus. (Unless the behavior and demands of teachers' unions is so egregious that merely pointing them out could be seen as an effort to persuade upright teachers to cancel their membership.)

I've sent Keegan an email asking what led him to call the blog central to the complaint, but for the time being, I'm not sure there hasn't been a misunderstanding somewhere along the line.


Mr. Keegan has confirmed that the reference to Felkner's blog came from Peter Gringas, during a telephone interview.

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"However, the the textual explanation of the complaint doesn't refer to the blog"

So ... how did Felkner accomplish the terrible things he is accused of in this complaint?

Posted by: Monique at September 27, 2007 9:53 PM

Well, that is the question. I'm not saying that the NEA didn't file a baseless complaint about the blog, or something else. I'm just interested in how Keegan got from a vague document to a central medium, not the least because I sense that whatever further evidence exists (the text in the "letter" to which he refers) contains the proof that the complaint is frivolous.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 27, 2007 10:11 PM

I shared some airtime with Bob Walsh last night on the Lively Experiment and had an opportunity to ask him about this complaint – oddly, he didn't know what the complaint was about either.

A letter has been written to Pete Gingras at the NEA asking for an explanation. I can only assume the complaint refers to my efforts to share information with the public. Union members were quoted in the paper making some false statements (they said they were not getting “cost of living’ increases and that we were asking for 30% copays (I wish)). I corrected those mistakes with an analysis of the contract and posted it on the blog.

The complaint also referenced laws that suggest I am trying to convince people to leave the union. I openly admit that I think anyone who is a good worker would be better off outside of a union (actually, bad employees would be better off outside of the union too, they need to find their niche but will never do so in an environment where inadequacy is protected) – but the law states that advocating for people to leave the union is only illegal if it is tied to a discrimination, either positive or negative. I can’t bride them to leave the union and I can’t punish them for not leaving it. I have done neither.

I doubt Bob Walsh didn’t know anything about this complaint, I just think he knew he couldn’t defend it so it was better to play dumb.

That being said, Mr. Walsh is a relatively nice guy, except when he brought up the fact that my wife is in the NEA. Out of the tens of thousands of NEA members, why would he know (or more importantly, why would he mention) that my wife was a member?

Posted by: WJFelkner at September 28, 2007 12:42 PM

Since your brought it up . . .

No, I actually did not know about the complaint against Bill (many of you may disagree with just about everything I say, but I do not lie and will concede when the other side has a good point in a civil conversation - even Tom W and I have found common ground from time to time.) Without the opportunity to discuss the background behind it with Pete Gingras, at face value I too assume that the complaint is about direct communication about negotiations with the public, which includes the union members. Blog's came along well after these laws were written, so it will be interesting to see how the situation is resolved.

I found Bill to be a "relatively nice guy", certainly both bright and quite conservative. The fact that I knew his wife is an NEARI member was a coincidence - I mentioned in the office he would be on the show, and was told that his wife was a member. (I believe that I referenced it on the show in the context of "I have to be nice to you, your wife is a member" or something like that). In any event, that is a relatively "Rhode Island" thing to do - Jim (whose wife is a retired teacher) mentioned that Darrell West was one of my former professors, and we have mentioned in the past that Maureen Moakley's maiden name was Walsh (no relation).

Interestingly, one of the last things I knew about Bill was that he was on the School Committee in Chariho - when I was told he was to be on the show, his appearance was explained to me as "the guy from the new conservative think tank" and I think I responded "isn't that the same guy who was in the MSW program at RIC?"

In any event, yet another worthy opponent is on the scene and I suspect that Bill will be on the show again.

Posted by: Bob Walsh at September 28, 2007 4:24 PM

And, as befits most of the "worthy opponents" who have risen to challenge the public sector union/poverty alliance in Rhode Island, Mr. Walsh and his cronies will now proceed to either "convince" Mr. Felkner that he will have a brighter future in another state, and/or tempt him to become one of the boys and enjoy the spoils that come from being an insider in this corrupt and destructive game called RI politics...Your good at it, Bob, we'll give you credit for that.

Posted by: John at September 29, 2007 12:17 AM


Using the term "relatively" could have been a reaction to you bringing up my wife. A school board member recently tried to bring my family into a public conversation and I just don't think that is appropriate. But you are a nice person, you're just horribly wrong on many topics (I suppose I should include a "IMHO" here).

Posted by: WJFelkner at September 29, 2007 7:14 PM

As someone new to this, I was surprised how small the TV studio was and how tall Robert is.

But can I ask you a serious question - you said that you and Mayor Cicillini were students together at Brown and you both entered as conservatives. Were you serious? I would love to hear the change process

Posted by: WJFelkner at September 29, 2007 8:07 PM


I was always fairly liberal - some of David's politics moved to the left since our high school days in Model Legislature and (then called) RI Boys' State. When I ran the student government at Brown, though, being a fairly liberal Democrat made me look like a moderate, as I found it easier and mreo effective to work with the administration as opposed to picket against it. (Brown had a very high level of student input and involvement on university committees back then - in fact, Don recently posted about my friend Randy Pausch's last lecture at CMU - Randy's ideas were the basis of a total redesign of Brown's housing policy that we put into place back then.)

Most of my "conservative" credentials are fiscal - although I am correctly accused of being willing to spend the taxpayers money, I don't like waste or deficits or programs that do not make sense, and think that sources of funds should be identified in advance, and short-term spending should be matched to short-term needs, and long-term indebtedness to long-term needs. For example, while I think it was the right move to securitize the tobacco money (because of the risk involved in collecting it long term), ALL the funds should have gone into the pension fund and/or to pay down bonded indebtedness (some funds were used to pay down bonds). I also think that any future direct gambling revenues should be used in the same way, so decisions about expanding gambling are not made just to balance the budget (obviously, there would be indirect revenues related to jobs created, etc.). I am probably also considered less than liberal on some crime, drug (not a big fan of decriminalization) and alcohol (leave the age at 21) issues.

I am fairly certain you will be back on Lively Experiment - we really did not get to talk about your new think tank, or about the broader range of issues that are worth debating.

Posted by: Bob Walsh at September 29, 2007 10:07 PM

Thank you, Bob. That's interesting.

Tell you what, when the Chariho contract negotiations are complete, I would love to sit with you and have a very frank conversation about what I have learned about this process.

Posted by: WJFelkner at September 30, 2007 1:46 PM


Agreed - much to discuss!


Posted by: Bob Walsh at October 2, 2007 11:04 AM
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