Here’s a warning: If you don’t get involved with labor unions or collective bargaining agreements, you might as well skip over this next post because things don’t get much more technical (or mundane, depending on your perspective) than the following case discussion. 

In a divided 3-2 decision, the Connecticut Supreme Court held that the collective bargaining agreement between the named defendant, the town of Greenwich, and the Silver Shield Association, the union representing the town’s police officers, did not cover the promotion to the position of police captain, which is a position outside the bargaining unit. (Note: the decision will be officially released on February 24, 2009.)  Justice Katz writes the dissenting opinion.

The case, Honulik v. Town of Greenwich, will have some significance for those who practice labor law in the state because it will help define what areas should be the subject of mandatory bargaining and what areas shouldn’t.  In this case, the court was asked to examine, among other items, the scope of the "past practices" clause in the collective bargaining agreement. That clause stated:

All benefits and obligations which are not described in this [a]greement or in either the manual or plan and which are now enjoyed by or required of the employees are specifically included in this [a]greement by reference just as though each such benefit or obligation was specifically set forth.

Ultimately, the court concludes that other provisions of the agreement belie the notion that
the past practices clause governs the nonmandatory bargaining subject of promotion to police captain.  The court notes that:

We also observe that our conclusion leaves intact the current status of labor law in our state. To conclude that past practices clauses protect nonmandatory subjects of bargaining, in the absence of express language to the contrary, would set forth a rule of law that might have the perverse effect of encouraging municipalities and other employers to behave erratically with respect to permissive subjects of bargaining so as not to create a past practice precedent. That we will not do.

For employers (and even some labor/employment law attorneys), it’s hard to get excited about this case. It’s lengthy and fact-specific and doesn’t lend itself to some overarching analysis.  But this case does reinforce the notion that employers should get sound legal advice when negotiating the terms of an agreement with a union.  Nothing beats good quality drafting of collective bargaining agreements to avoid any future disputes later on.

As an aside, I can’t help but chuckle at the following footnote (footnote 17, if you’re curious), buried in Justice Katz’s dissent :

In light of the urgency to resolve this expedited public interest appeal as expeditiously as possible, I do not address the remaining arguments of the parties.

In case you are curious, the court held oral arguments on the case on April 15, 2008, nearly 10 months ago.