Daniel Weintraub: Who is in control inside prisons? It's negotiable
By Daniel Weintraub -
Published 12:00 am PDT Thursday, April 19, 2007
Story appeared in EDITORIALS section, Page B7
When the warden at Wasco State Prison near Bakersfield wanted to start keeping track of how often the inmates were showering, she told the guards under her command to begin keeping a log noting each time a prisoner bathed.
The guards thought this was a stupid idea. It would take too much time, they argued. And besides, with many inmates granted open access to the showers pretty much any time they liked, it would be nearly impossible to track who was going in and coming out.
So the Wasco guards -- backed by their union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association -- filed a grievance. Alleging that the warden's order was a violation of the union's contract with the state, the complaint demanded that she "meet and confer" with the union to negotiate the best way to keep track of the inmates' grooming habits.
The Wasco grievance was one among 488 that were filed by the union and eventually appealed in 2006 to the state Department of Personnel Administration, which handles such claims.
More than 300 of those grievances, it turns out, were based on a provision of the correctional officers' contract that is at the heart of the labor dispute between the union and the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. More than money, more than benefits, a fundamental disagreement about day-to-day control over the prisons is holding up progress in the talks. The union has been without a contract since last July.
Known as the "entire agreement" clause, the provision allows the union to object whenever a warden or the statewide prison bosses try to put in place a policy change that affects the way the correctional officers do their jobs. The grievances are filed on the grounds that the changes, even if they don't violate a specific provision of the contract, violate the entire agreement because they affect the working conditions of a significant number of officers.
The union says the clause merely gives its members a say in how their jobs are structured. But the state says it hamstrings the ability of prison managers to run the institutions in a safe and effective way.
The grievances filed under that clause are as varied as the far-flung prison system itself.
When the state tried to implement training for a new drug treatment program without consulting the guards, the union objected. When Mule Creek State Prison tried to add 80 new bunks for inmates in a gymnasium, the union filed a grievance. When the California Institution for Men tried to change the way prisoners were transported to medical appointments, the union cried foul.
When the warden at Pleasant Valley State Prison wanted to use plastic food trays to feed inmates during a lockdown, the union said No. When North Kern State Prison, trying to prevent inmate suicides, told the guards to do more frequent visual checks on new prisoners in solitary confinement, the union filed a grievance. And when the warden at Wasco gave the guards a new piece of equipment to use when administering cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, the union pushed back.
The union even objected when the state let guards on state time attend training at a conference sponsored by the Association of Black Correctional Workers because managers had denied the same privilege to guards who wanted to attend training sponsored by the union.
The state's negotiators know they will never succeed in removing the clause from the contract. The same clause is in every other union contract with the state. But the governor's representatives are especially bothered by a side agreement entered into by former Gov. Gray Davis in the last round of talks. It makes each of these hundreds of disputes, once they are settled, part of the union's master contract and thus immune from change without further negotiations.
"The part they don't like about it is they want to change it every other week," said Chuck Alexander, the union's executive vice president. "They'd rather just be able to change willy-nilly the working conditions of our members without having to talk to us about it. I understand that. But that's not reality in California, or most other states to my knowledge."
Alexander says Schwarzenegger's negotiators exaggerate the effect of the clause on their ability to run the prisons. Ultimately, the state still has the power to implement whatever changes it wants. It just has to notify the union first and then negotiate in good faith about the effect of those changes and ways to mitigate the effect on union members.
But David Gilb, director of the Department of Personnel Administration, says the requirement for collective bargaining is so onerous, and the risk of locking any new agreement into the contract so great, that prison managers have to think more than twice about making any changes.
"I can't tell you how many times they may not act at all, just because it would be so difficult," he said. "It's such a hammer out there that it forces us down a path, that fundamentally we cannot manage, or it's very difficult to manage, without the union's concurrence in one way or another."
“Nobody's perfect. We're all just one step up from the beasts and one step down from the angels.”