One day last week, approximately a dozen people gathered in two separate rooms at the Lodi Unified School District offices. Seymour Kramer traveled back and forth between the groups, relaying information and collecting documents.
Kramer is a state mediator brought in by the district with hopes of coming to a labor agreement with the teachers' union.
There is no charge for his services, but he earns a hefty annual salary of up to $91,000 through the Public Employment Relations Board's department of industrial relations.
The State Mediation Conciliation Service, which falls under PERB, has been providing mediation, arbitration and other neutral services since 1947.
Its core service is mediation of public sector contract disputes in school districts, community colleges, higher education, the State of California, cities, counties, special districts, transit districts and the trial courts to reach agreements in bargaining.
It doesn't happen often in this region, according to local union officials.
"We spend a great deal of time analyzing district data and going over scenarios (and) discussing what an agreement would look like that both the district and our members would accept," said California School Employees Association representative Dan Morris.
That union, too, is going through the mediation process with a state-appointed mediator.
It is confidential, so details about the current issues cannot be discussed, but Morris has undergone the process four times in the past seven years. Mediation is handled the same by the state, regardless of the union affiliation.
For the most part, the mediator keeps each party's negotiation team separate while he or she works with each side in an effort to ascertain an agreement, according to Morris.
"The mediator helps the parties focus on the goal of achieving an agreement and helps to bring calm to the emotions that will sometimes impede the parties ability to achieve agreement," Morris said.
The duration of the mediation process is determined by the mediator, and when he or she feels there is no breaking through in the deadlock then the mediator certifies the parties to fact-finding.
The Oakland-based State Mediation and Conciliation Service was established to improve employer-union relations in California. There are regional offices in Oakland, as well as the Central Valley and Southern California.
There are currently 11 mediators statewide: five in Southern California, two in the Central Valley and four in Northern California, according to Annie Song-Hill, presiding conciliator.
Mediators perform contract impasse and grievance mediations; chair adjustment panels and discipline hearings; conduct training and facilitation; resolve conflicts; and conduct representation elections.
For each of these functions, the number of sessions depends upon the particulars of each case, she said, adding that it is not uncommon for a mediator to start a session on one day and work into the evening and the next morning.
"It is safe to say that among the functions mentioned above, mediators are engaged planning, travel and conducting one or more of the above activities five days per week," Song-Hill said.
Impasse services are free.
Who are they?
Mediators must have four years of experience — one year of which must have been within the past five years — in the conciliation of labor disputes or work stoppages resulting from labor disputes, or in the negotiation, administration and interpretation of collective bargaining agreements where these duties constituted the major element of the job, according to the state's website.
The pay range is between $6,267 and $7,619 per month.
They have various backgrounds, according to Song-Hill, who worked in human resource management and as a trainer and facilitator in collective bargaining before taking a job with the state.
Others worked as both labor and management advocates.
After years advocating for both unions and management, mediator Tony Butka became a neutral with Los Angeles County's Civil Service and Employee Relations Commissions.
"(I) got hooked on the idea that there simply had to be a better way of resolving disputes other than beating up on each other and/or expensive, lengthy litigation. Turns out there is," he said in an e-mail.
All mediators share the belief that mediation provides the best way to resolve conflicts, according to Song-Hill.
"The process is confidential and allows the parties to come up with solutions that are mutually acceptable," she said. "This is done in an informal process that is cost-effective and preserves relationships."
Kramer met separately with district officials and teachers' union representatives last Wednesday with hopes of reaching a tentative labor agreement. They are scheduled to meet again Monday.
The parties are working toward a contract after a months-long stalemate that began with discussions in November.
In April, 80 percent of the union rejected a proposed contract and talks continued behind closed doors. But at the end of May, with no agreement in sight, the district filed for impasse for a second time.
If after mediation a compromise cannot be reached, the district can make one last offer after a fact-finding step. If the teachers reject it, they go on strike, but union representatives have said they don't believe it will go that far.
Meanwhile, the 246 teachers who received final pink slips on May 15 have been laid off.
Classified staff, too, has suffered its fair share of layoffs, including 20 custodians.
That union has also been working toward an agreement. When the parties reached a tentative agreement that included five furlough days and a 2 percent salary reduction, Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer issued communications directly to employees that Morris felt undermined the union's ratification vote.
That was among the precursors to CSEA filing an unfair complaint in an effort to protect against the board imposing its last and best offer.
Since then, that union has met with its state mediator, Steve Pearl, and the district twice, most recently on July 1. The next meeting is set for today, according to Morris.
He says the district has the money to pay employees that have been laid off, and the school board has used pawns in an attempt to coerce the unions into bad agreements.
"(Board members) would rather lay off workers than find any compromise," he said.
But the district has maintained that further concessions must be made to close a multimillion-dollar budget gap.
Michael McKilligan, who oversees the district's human resources department and began some teacher call-backs last Friday, is the district's key person in bargaining discussions.
The teachers' bargaining team includes Lodi Education Association president Jeff Johnston, a representative from the California Teachers Association and another four or five support staff members. The classified mediation process includes nine elected team members plus Morris.
In addition to McKilligan, the district is represented by legal counsel and the director of classified personnel, a position now held by Neil Young after Elliot Grauman retired last month.
The parties typically provide little more than coffee during mediation, according to Morris, who said meals are not paid for.
Having gone through the mediation process for the fourth time since 2003, he has more experience than most labor staff.
In 2003, Stockton Chapter 318 went through mediation. Three years later, the parties ended up there again. Along with Stockton's Delta Valley Chapter 821, the groups narrowly avoided strike in 2006, he said.
The last time LEA found itself in mediation was in 1990. It took several sessions to come to an agreement due to working around people's schedules, according to former teachers' union president Sue Kenmotsu.
All public agencies can receive the services of a mediator after impasse is declared by either side during negotiations. That person is supplied by the Public Employment Relations Board.
Although the person works toward a settlement, neither side is legally bound by the decisions arrived at by the mediator. Once a party files with PERB, timelines are taken out of the negotiators' hands and things become much more formal and legal, according to Johnston.
"We're talking weeks and weeks and weeks," Kenmotsu said. "The whole process of mediation and fact-finding is to work toward an agreement.
"When you bargain you don't know when you're done. It takes five minutes to come to a decision, it takes longer to ratify that decision."
In Lodi Unified's case, Kramer has requested both parties respect confidentiality in order to best utilize the mediation process to its fullest potential.
Should an agreement be reached, after a review by the union's executive board, it could go to members for a vote. All active members will be allowed to take part, including those who have been laid off but whose dues are paid through August.
Once the results are official and certified by the executive board, any concessions in the agreement may be acted upon by the district, including any agreed-upon furlough days or other salary reductions.
In the end, Morris said that while the duration period of the mediation process is difficult to pin down and is oftentimes set by the mediator, it can sometimes be determined by other mitigating factors such as school board elections.
With five board seats open in Lodi, he expects there will be opportunity to resolve the contract negotiations either before the elections in incumbents are running, he said.
"New board candidates will (also) make promises to try to garner the labor vote," Morris said.
Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Timeline: From impasse to strike
Mediation is the first stage of the impasse process. A single mediator from the State Mediation and Conciliation Service is tasked with reviewing how the parties got to impasse.
For the most part, the mediator keeps the parties separate while he/she works with each party in an effort to ascertain an agreement. When the mediator feels there is no breaking through in the deadlock, then the mediator certifies the parties to fact-finding.
The state then assigns a factfinder who is charged with scheduling a fact-finding hearing. At that time, each party identifies a person who will sit on a panel with the factfinder — usually the employers selects a budget person, and the union selects their panel expert — and a hearing on the outstanding issues is conducted with each party calling on witnesses to help make their argument.
After the hearing, the state-appointed factfinder considers the evidence from the hearing, and considers the expert testimony given by each party's representative before offering a written decision with input from the two panel experts. The factfinder's report is held in confidence for a designated period of time after which the report is made public.
The parties then determine what, if anything, they can accept in the factfinder's report, and at some point the district may issue their last, best and final offer. If the union fails to agree to the district's terms, its members can call for a strike.
— Source: Dan Morris, California School Employees Association.
What's PERB got to do with it?
The Public Employment Relations Board is a quasi-judicial administrative agency charged with administering the collective bargaining statutes covering employees of California's public schools, colleges and universities, employees of the State of California, employees of California local public agencies (cities, counties and special districts), trial court employees and supervisory employees of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Headquartered in Sacramento, it includes three departments:
The Office of the General Counsel, which includes PERB's chief legal officer and regional attorneys. The office is responsible for managing the processing of unfair practice charges, and for providing legal representation to PERB in all court proceedings.
The Representation Section oversees the statutory process through which employees come to form a bargaining unit and select an organization to represent them in their labor relations with their employer. This includes mediation services.
The Division of Administrative Law houses PERB's Administrative Law Judges, who serve as impartial judges of the labor disputes which fall under PERB's jurisdiction. They conduct informal conferences with the parties to unfair practice cases in an effort to settle disputes before proceeding to formal hearing.
If no settlement is reached, judges conduct adjudicative proceedings complete with the presentation of evidence and examination of witnesses under oath. The judges then issue proposed decisions consisting of written findings of fact and legal conclusions.
The Administration Section provides support services to PERB, such as business services, personnel, accounting, information technology, mail and duplicating. This section also maintains liaison with the Legislature, the Department of Finance and other agencies within state government.
— Source: www.ca.gov.