Tuesday, February 8, 2011

States Aim to Curb Collective Bargaining

By Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week. Click here for complete story.

First it was changes to pay, then evaluation systems, and then tenure laws. Now, lawmakers in several states are challenging collective bargaining, the foundation of teacher unionism.

In Idaho and Indiana, Republican leaders are proposing bills that would limit collective bargaining to wages and benefits, excluding education policy issues. And in Tennessee, a recently introduced bill would abolish altogether teachers’ ability to bargain collectively.

None of the proposals has yet passed its respective legislative chambers, but they are emerging in what may be a particularly favorable political climate, given the rightward shift in many state capitals as a result of the November elections. Teachers’ unions are already defending many hard-won policies, such as due process procedures granted to teachers who earn tenure.

If enacted, the proposals would tilt decision making on policy decisively toward school leaders just as they are coming under increasing pressure to become more nimble and purposeful with spending.

“If it means that we, management, would gain more flexibility and enable us to work with teachers to focus more on student-achievement issues, we’d welcome an increased flexibility in collective bargaining,” said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association.

Teachers’ unions in those three states, though, view the legislative proposals as thinly veiled attacks on their very existence. They have vowed to mobilize to prevent the proposals from becoming law—and will have help to that end from the National Education Association, the parent of affiliates in all three states.

“For us, it’s really shortsighted,” said Bill J. Raabe, the director of collective bargaining and member advocacy for the 3.2 million-member NEA. “We should be looking at who needs to be in the room for discussions about education policy. ... The union and members of the union really are the ones on the front lines, and we should have school employees directly involved.”

Winds of Change

Labor analysts say that some of the movement can be traced to changing political winds. Republicans have traditionally sought to curtail collective bargaining rights for public employees, while Democrats have promoted them; workers in states such as New Mexico have even experienced flip-flops as successive leaders have moved through the state.

For teachers, bargaining is currently prohibited in just five states, and it is mandatory in 35, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group. The scope of bargaining differs by state.

In the 2010 elections, Indiana and Tennessee both switched to GOP-dominated legislative and executive branches; Idaho remained Republican-controlled. Lawmakers in all three states introduced, or plan to introduce, bills curtailing teacher bargaining. Similar bills are rumored to be in the works in New Jersey and Ohio, though no specific legislative proposals have emerged yet in those states.

“There’s absolutely no question that the Republican playbook is about weakening public-sector unions,” said Charles Taylor Kerchner, a research professor at Claremont Graduate University, in Claremont, Calif., who has studied teacher bargaining. “What’s different is that the teachers’ unions have lost the confidence of a swath of the Democratic Party,” potentially emboldening opponents of teacher bargaining.

Unions have long counted on Democratic lawmakers for support, but allies from President Barack Obama to U.S. Rep. George Miller to local figures, like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have pressed them to accept changes to traditional pay and seniority structures.

The furthest-reaching of the state proposals, in Tennessee, would bar teachers’ unions from bargaining collectively.

Officials of the Tennessee Education Association are smarting from the proposal, especially because last year the union worked with lawmakers to craft a compromise around teacher evaluations, said Jerry Winters, the director of government relations for the TEA. The state ultimately won a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant.

“It was very much a surprise,” Mr. Winters said of the proposal. “A lot of teachers are feeling, frankly, betrayed by some of these lawmakers.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Debra Maggart, said teachers are the only public employees allowed to bargain under state law, which requires it in a district if the union represents more than half the teachers.

“We know that collective bargaining costs taxpayers money because of lawsuits and having to have negotiation teams, additional employees to deal with the union day in and day out,” the Republican lawmaker said. “Is it the whole problem with education? No. But I do think it’s worth noting and exploring the issue of this bill being a piece of the solution.”

Cost is likely a motivating factor behind all the proposals, according to Richard W. Hurd, a professor in the school of labor relations at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y.

“It quite clearly is traced to the public-sector budgets and the deep recession—the fact that we still have depressed tax revenue for governments at all levels,” he said.

Double-Edged Sword

In all, unions likely have the most to lose from the current proposals in terms of membership and reach. In Tennessee, TEA officials said they think the bill to prohibit collective bargaining by teachers’ unions could pass.

“I assure you, we are not taking this lightly,” said Mr. Winters of the TEA. “What we have to try to show is that we’ve got some moderate Republican friends who are not necessarily going to fall in line with this kind of attack on their teachers. But if it goes right down party lines, we lose.”

Mr. Raabe of the NEA said that the parent union will provide help with messaging and communications support, in addition to lobbying and financial assistance.

Labor specialists, meanwhile, cautioned that the collective bargaining proposals also carry potential hazards for school boards, superintendents, and Democratic lawmakers who sign on to the bills.

“If you take power away from the unions, then the blame [for results] falls entirely on the superintendents and the school boards,” Mr. Hurd of Cornell said. “In the past, the unions have been able to ally themselves with the school boards. They both want more money for the schools.”

“Democrats who want to weaken labor relations ought to be real, real careful,” added Claremont’s Mr. Kerchner. “If you want someone to be steadfastly in public education’s corner in terms of raising money, you’ve got no better friend than the NEA.”

Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.

Picture: Fourth Street Park, Hoboken, NJ January 2011