Janesville63°

Mediator optimistic on teacher contract

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
December 16, 2007
— Karen Mawhinney thinks she has a good shot at getting the feuding teachers and school board to see eye to eye, if she could just get them together.

Mawhinney is the mediator for the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission assigned to the dispute over the 2007-09 contract for Janesville public school teachers.


In the three months since the school board filed for mediation, the two sides have not succeeded in finding a date on which they both could meet with Mawhinney. They say they are looking at dates in late January. That would be more than four months since the school board filed for state mediation.


The two sides have continued to meet on their own, sporadically, with no great progress reported.


Mawhinney has mediated numerous similar disputes. Her optimism is related to her agency’s track record: 90 percent of their cases are resolved with voluntary settlements.


“Voluntary” is a key word. One outcome of the mediation process could be an involuntary settlement. Teachers know it as a QEO, or qualified economic offer.


In a QEO, the board is allowed to settle the dispute unilaterally by giving the teachers an increase in salary and benefits combined of 3.8 percent.


That may not sound bad, but benefits sometimes eat up so much of the increase that salaries actually have to be cut, Mawhinney noted.


“Nobody wants rollbacks on salary,” Mawhinney said.


Sometimes, if a board does impose a QEO, the two sides realize the impact and get back to the bargaining table to enhance the offer.


Mawhinney’s optimism also might spring from the fact that the Janesville School Board has never imposed a QEO.


“It’s just been a little more difficult getting it off the ground this year,” Mawhinney said.


The last time a state mediator was assigned to the Janesville teacher contract was January 2003. Mawhinney recalled she was assigned to that case, too, but the two sides settled on their own before mediation started.


Mediators sometimes bring the two sides together in the same room, but Mawhinney said she keeps them apart in most cases. Each side has a room at a school or at the district office building, and she shuttles between them, carrying ideas.


“It’s a matter of trying to develop new options for them, develop ways of thinking about things they haven’t thought about, exploring scenarios that they haven’t explored,” she said.


Sometimes, it helps to discuss the best-case scenario, the worst case, and the fact that they’re never going to be 100 percent satisfied with the outcome, she added.


Often, agreement is reached after one session. “But it may be more. Every case is a little different.”


If mediation fails, Mawhinney could declare a deadlock, which sets off a process that could lead to a QEO or interest arbitration, in which an arbitrator chooses the final offer of one side or the other.


“I don’t give them a deadlock until I’m certain the parties aren’t going to move any more or the movement would be ... insignificant,” she said.


A deadlock sometimes prompts the two sides to reconsider and go back to mediation, which is fine by Mawhinney.


“It’s their contract,” she said. “We’re trying to shepherd them through what they can do legally as far as the QEO or interest arbitration, and hopefully stop them short of both of those processes.”


Arbitration comes about when the board is offering more than a QEO settlement but less than what the union will accept, she said.


Arbitration especially can poison relations and spoil the next round of negotiations, she said.


While Mawhinney foresees a voluntary settlement, she may not be the one to usher it in. She’s scheduled to retire in February.


“I’ll probably never get a chance to meet with these people, at this rate,” she joked about the two sides’ failure to set a date.


But never fear, the WERC would replace her with someone else, she said.



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