Tips on creating labor-management committees

There are times when both unions and management are faced with an issue where their respective goals and objectives are compatible. When both union and management recognize and acknowledge a longstanding problem, such as inflation of health insurance costs, can best be addressed by combining the knowledge and limited resources available to both, then a labor-management committee may be the avenue in which to discuss and address these problems. Rarely is the bargaining-table well-suited for discussing and resolving wide ranging single issues that often require considerable research, fact finding, technical expertise, and time. The typical strategy of negotiating “tradeoffs” is not the strategy of choice when attempting o resolve complex, longstanding problems. A committee allowing both union and management the ability to express ideas and consider new or innovative ideas for resolving issues may be the answer.

Labor-Management Committees create opportunities, but not guarantees, for resolving problems. They also provide a forum for communication, information gathering, research, rigorous debate, and joint problem-solving.

Labor-Management Committees are created during negotiations and their compositions, structures, participants, and purposes of the committees are determined as well. When considering creating such committees, consider the following:

  • Composition:  each party appoints an equal number of participants.
  • Purpose:  stated in clear, unequivocal language.
  • Committee's Authority:  precisely articulated and if the committee is to make recommendations, publish a report, or make operational decisions, the contract language must clearly state as such.
  • Internal Operating Structures and Procedures:  generally left to the committee itself to decide. The relative importance of specifying those procedures and structures in the contract is directly related to the actual power of the committee itself. Advisory committees usually allow some degree of self-determination. If actually making decisions, then it is strongly recommended setting forth the decision-making process in the contract, e.g., "All committee decisions shall be by a majority vote of a quorum of the voting members appointed to the committee."
  • Define the Committee’s Chair or Convener:  co-chairs (one appointed by the Union and on appointed by management) are most common.
  • Timelines for Formation, Duration, and Expiration:  recommend including in authorizing contract language. Standing committees often have the terms of individual members specified. Ad hoc or topic limited committees typically have a time limited duration for all committee functions.
  • Meeting Schedule: establish a schedule. Regular meetings appear to be a key for successful committees.
  • Generic Labor-Management Committees:  general problem-solving purposes to encourage labor-management cooperation. These can be informal meetings of the Union President and the Superintendent or very formal with specific structure and membership.

Labor-Management Committees: permissive or mandatory subjects of bargaining 

Early rulings from the Employment Relations Board (ERB) from the 1975 trilogy have indicated that advisory "committees" are generally mandatory subjects of bargaining. South Lane Education Association v. South Lane School District No. 45J, Case No. C–280, 1 PECBR 459, 471 (1975). Springfield Education Association v. Springfield School District No. 19, Case No. C–278, 1 PECBR 347, 365 (1975). Eugene Education Association v. Eugene School District No. 4J, Case No. C–279, 1 PECBR 446, 454 (1975).

In 1993, ERB ruled collective bargaining agreement language regarding a labor management committee designed to address workload issues and meeting during regular work hours was a permissive subject of bargaining. ERB’s rationale, that although the committee structure might not actually result in actions directly affecting the working conditions of bargaining unit employees, it potentially interfered with the employer's right to assign non-represented employees to duties during the workday thus infringing upon management's rights more than employees' working conditions. Oregon Public Employees Union v. State of Oregon, Executive Dept., Case No. UP–71–93, 14 PECBR 14/746, 14/771 (1993).

While “advisory” committees leave the final decision to the employer, committees having broad ranges of powers and scope are found to be permissive subjects of bargaining, restricting management rights and prerogatives. The most common committee structure in a collective bargaining agreement, both in licensed and classified contracts, is the committee that makes “recommendations” to the employer. Lane County’s Eugene School District 4J continues to have one of the longest-standing insurance committees. The purpose of the committee is to determine the design and management of the District benefit program, disperse reserve funds, and communicate with bargaining unit members regarding benefit issues. The parties' collective bargaining agreement clearly states four committee members are appointed by the association and four by the District, labor-management co-chairs are designated, and all decisions are made by consensus. The committee has a budget line item for support and about a $60K insurance reserve account with funds disbursed by the committee. The committee has a Benefit Coordinator who, by agreement, is a bargaining unit member with duties assigned by the committee. The Benefit Coordinator position is funded 50% from the reserve and 50% by the District.

Characteristics of Insurance Committees

Most have found the increasing costs of health care, combined with a troubled economy and less than adequate financial resources, are framing a common problem that apparently will just not go away. Coming to grips with health care inflation can become a common search for a solution that meets the underlying interests of both parties: accessing an optimal amount of health benefit insurance, for the least cost, in the most efficient manner, and within the new confines of healthcare reform. Insurance committees may be that forum to allow the Union and the employer to work together to meet both parties interests.

Easy access to individuals with sufficient expertise in insurance is a critical factor in maintaining an effective and useful long term insurance committee. The technical and complex nature of heath care, combined with the sometimes arcane nature of the insurance industry, can often be a daunting prospect to employees. Regular attendance of Business Mangers or Agents-of-Record may be needed to help ensure a successful committee structure. some reliance on outside experts will be essential for understanding oftentimes complex and ever-changing rules and regulations, explain differences between such things as health reimbursement accounts (HRAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs), and to explain plan options and changes for the upcoming insurance year.

A summary of current collective bargaining agreement insurance committee language stating the purpose, structure and authority of those insurance committees are set out below.

Purposes: The most common purposes of insurance committees for those employers who self-insure are to explore and recommend various carriers and plans for consideration by the parties in negotiations. Typical purposes are to:

  • Review benefits; investigate creative program designs for optimal use of resources;
  • Receive quarterly report regarding use of benefits, UCR changes, and potential cost increases;
  • Compare benefits and costs about any carrier change;
  • Gather information and submit a recommendation regarding benefits, service levels, and related program costs.

However, for those employers who buy insurance through OEBB, insurance committees have taken on a drastically different purpose. No longer does the committee design benefit plans. No longer does the committee review employer experience (in use of insurance benefits). The committees now meet to review OEBB's available plans and perhaps decide to offer or recommend to the employer to offer as options for the employees. Many employers and unions have dismantled their insurance committees and the employer simply offers all OEBB plans to the employees.

Structure:  Assignment of equal committee members from the Union and from the employer appears to be the defining characteristic of insurance committees. Representation from all employee groups (licensed, classified, administrative, and confidential) Is also standard. Inclusion of representatives from all employee groups also leads to a potential shift in decision-making authority. When representatives of all employee groups sit on the committee, the employer must consider who has final decision-making authority. In these times of rampant healthcare reforms and on-going health insurance changes, it is strongly recommended the employer maintain final decision-making authority as to number of plans to offer or to at least maintain the authority to offer the highest deductible plan available (for OEBB currently Plan H). This will help ensure the employer is meeting requirements under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and will not be assessed a fee due to offering its employees unaffordable health care. Typical internal operating structures and procedures are largely absent from contract language.

Insurance committee structure, authority, and purpose must regularly be reviewed to assure the committee continues to meet employers' and unions' interests in the ever-changing world of healthcare reform.