The issue is so confusing that some local politicians have urged Calvert County teachers and staff members to forget about it.
But union leaders negotiating a contract for the county's teachers and support staff members said they will not compromise on the subject: the right to have union representation when called into a disciplinary meeting with a supervisor.
Negotiations between the unions and the Board of Education are at an impasse, mainly because of a disagreement over the representation issue, both sides said. To protest the breakdown in talks, teachers began a "work-to-rule" action this month, limiting their on-duty time to the 7.5 hours a day required by their contracts.
How far apart are the two sides? To start with, they can't even agree on what to call the subject of the dispute.
The unions said they are asking for "Weingarten language," a reference to a 1975 Supreme Court decision in NLRB v. J. Weingarten Inc. In that case, the court said the National Labor Relations Act grants employees the right to union representation during meetings with employers that might result in disciplinary action.
But the school board said that is the wrong terminology to use because courts have held that Weingarten applies only to the private sector.
Nonetheless, teachers and support staff members in Calvert's public schools do have the right to representation in many cases under their old contract. "The language is kind of quasi-Weingarten," said Joe Sella, chief negotiator for the unions.
The old contract said teachers and support staff members have the right to be represented by the union or an attorney when the meeting is about a complaint "to be used as part of the evaluation of that employee."
School officials said they allow employees to have representation after a complaint by an outside party, such as a parent. They also said teachers and support staff members have that right if there will be an investigation by police or other outside agencies.
But teachers and support staff members do not have that right if a student or colleague makes the complaint, said Jack Smith, Calvert schools' deputy superintendent.
"The principal has a legal and I think moral obligation to call the parent when there's an accusation made by a child," he said. "If they can't share the teacher's point of view because we've waited for union representation, I think that puts us in a tough spot."
If an employee files a complaint against a colleague, Smith said, it would be problematic to allow both to have union representation. "Which one would the union represent?" he asked.
In those situations, Sella said, the union would bring in a representative from a neighboring county to assist one of the employees.
Teachers and support staff members said they are insisting on representation because their supervisors have that right during all meetings to investigate misconduct.
"This is about respect," said Pat Major, a math and computer teacher at Calvert Middle School. "Why should we be treated any differently than our principals?"
School officials said principals need to be able to meet freely with teachers and staff members. Smith said the schools could not function if supervisors had to wait for a union representative every time they wanted to meet with employees.
"That would severely impede the school's ability to operate," he said.
If employees believe they have been treated unfairly, they can request a follow-up meeting with their supervisor and bring a union representative, Smith said.
The complexity of the issue has proved frustrating for officials from the school board and the union. Many Calvert residents seem confused about the subject, if not unaware of it. One prominent politician even advised the unions to abandon the matter because it is so confounding.
"You should drop this Weingarten language," Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) told a group of teachers last week. "The public doesn't understand it, and they're not going to buy into it."
Union members listened politely but said they would continue to fight for representation, with or without public support.