June 27, 2014

Modesto Teachers Association, state affiliate CTA argue merits of competing cases

Arguments Friday narrowed to practical implications and technical standing in the competing lawsuits of the Modesto Teachers Association and its state affiliate. MTA leadership tried in May to break away from the California Teachers Association. Members voted down the proposal, but not before the state union moved to impose a trusteeship on the local chapter.

Arguments narrowed to practical implications and legal protocols in the competing lawsuits of the Modesto Teachers Association and its state affiliate in a hearing Friday in Stanislaus Superior Court. A decision is not expected until Monday.

Judge Timothy Salter started the hearing by saying the California Teachers Association’s legal right to impose a trusteeship May 5 on the Modesto local was not at issue. The question, he said, is whether it had good reason to do so.

“The bottom-line issue here is that I have to answer: Were the actions of CTA necessary and reasonable?” Salter told attorneys before taking their comments. The state union’s evidence that it needed to step in to restore democratic processes “is rather weak,” he said.

CTA attorney Glenn Rothner said though the MTA proposal to disaffiliate was soundly defeated by its members, the election failed to follow rules. “The context for questioning democratic procedures is not about the result,” Rothner said. “Democracy is nothing if not a process.”

Further, he said, “MTA’s posture suggests to us a sense of ‘Their rules do not apply to us.’ We expect the issue of disaffiliation is not dead.”

By casting the May 6 vote as a bylaws change, MTA leaders sought to split off with a simple majority vote instead of the two-thirds approval of total membership needed to disaffiliate. But MTA attorney Rafael Ruano said the route to disaffiliate was unreasonably difficult.

“Their rules require a 12-step process that drags it out for almost a year,” Ruano said. He said that the trusteeship before the vote was not needed, that if the split had succeeded, the state union could have taken MTA to court, arguing the case as a contract dispute.

“There was no need to restore democratic procedures,” he said. However, Ruano said the election was tainted by conflicting local and state emails to members that said the vote was off and then on again. “It was chaos,” he said.

In a separate point, Rothner said MTA jumped the gun in filing a lawsuit before trying the union’s own appeals process. Citing legal precedents, he said a voluntary, private organization is required to exhaust internal remedies before taking the matter to court.

Ruano countered that the California Teachers Association appeals process was not a viable option for the MTA leadership. He asked the judge to grant MTA’s injunction against the trusteeship, saying the Modesto chapter needed to clear its title of all legal ambiguity.

“Otherwise, it’s a stalemate,” Ruano said. Banks and school district negotiators require clear authority for MTA to manage its affairs, he said, “The status quo is uncertainty.”

But Rothner asked the judge to deny both injunctions and leave the trusteeship in place, allowing a July 10 hearing for members to proceed. He pledged the state group would not try to seize control of MTA offices or accounts, as it attempted to do May 5.

“We’re not going to interfere with MTA,” he told the judge. “Let’s see what the hearing process provides.”

The dueling lawsuits stemmed from an MTA dispute with the state union over how it paid its executive director. A $280,000 staffing grant the Modesto chapter received required the local to directly pay its employees. For 22 years, however, a former teacher held the post and MTA paid Modesto City Schools to keep the individual on its rolls.

The arrangement allowed the MTA staff member to continue to accrue California State Teachers Retirement System credit as if still teaching. CalSTRS questions regarding the practice alerted the state union to the grant compliance issue. The MTA leadership council decided to lose the grant and leave the state affiliate rather than change how it paid its top executive.

The membership vote to put that plan in place prompted the CTA move to impose a trusteeship. Salter granted MTA a temporary restraining order on May 15, allowing the local to unfreeze its accounts and finish negotiating the 2014-15 teachers contract.

Hopes for settlement talks between the two groups put off scheduled hearings, but a proposed deal was voted down by the MTA board of directors early this month and the parties have returned to court.

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