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No Bargain: Illinois Law Creates New Problems

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Springfield, Ill--A collective-bargaining law that took a decade to get through the Illinois legislature appears to be causing more problems for teachers and school boards than it solved.

Dissatisfaction with the legislation, which was approved last year, is so widespread that teachers' unions and other special-interest groups are preparing for yet another legislative battle over bargaining next year. The unions hope that the November election will bring additional pro-bargaining forces to the General Assembly so that they can press successfully for a more explicit, mandatory collective-bargaining bill.

The current law has left most people confused and almost everyone unhappy.

The legislation was approved in 1981 when the Illinois Education Association (iea) put its full weight behind it after 10 years of losing to legislators who were reluctant to "interfere" with the operations of local governments.

Under provisions of the bill, teachers seeking to form a bargaining unit can petition regional superintendents of schools to hold an election.

The law then provides that if the majority of a district's teachers vote to form a union, the union must be recognized by the local board of education--a clause that has touched off controversy, confusion, and a court case.

According to some school officials, the term "recognition" as used in labor law is commonly interpreted to mean mandatory bargaining.

School-board leaders and representatives of school administrators immediately sought clarification from Gov. James R. Thompson and legislative sponsors.

Governor Thompson insisted it was not a mandatory-bargaining law, as did pro-union sponsors in the House and Senate who told colleagues during debate on the measure that it was merely a bill to require representation elections, not collective bargaining.

At that point, as school districts were preparing for the 1981-82 school year, just about everyone agreed that the new law required only that an election be held and not that school boards negotiate contracts with teachers if they did not want to.

Problems Remained

But additional problems remained.

The law called for regional school superintendents to conduct the recognition elections.

But those superintendents--who are elected to office and who perform mainly bookkeeping functions--have little knowledge of or experience with labor law.

Nor was the new law of much help to them in that regard.

It authorized the regional officials to hold the elections but established no guidelines for carrying out that mandate.

So the legal staff of the state board of education called representatives of all interested parties together to come up with a set of regulations to govern how the elections would be handled.

Some of the state's 57 regional superintendents adopted the regulations and some did not, leaving the enforcement of the guidelines uneven and local school officials more confused than ever.

Into that legal chaos stepped the Quincy school district, whose officials were vehemently opposed to bargaining with teachers over a contract.

When teachers in the Mississippi River town petitioned for an election, the school board's attorney approached the county's state's attorney in mid-December seeking a legal opinion on whether an election had to be held at all if the board had no intention of bargaining with teachers.

The state's attorney passed the ball to Illinois Attorney General Tyrone C. Fahner, who issued an informal opinion that further muddied the picture, according to most observers.

According to Mr. Fahner, the law did not mandate collective bargaining.

He said, however, that if a school board did not object to collective bargaining before the recognition election was held, it had tacitly agreed to bargain with teachers once the election was concluded.

The Attorney General was then bombarded with complaints from school-board and state-board officials who claimed his interpretation was unsupported by any provision in the law.

"That was simply not correct," says Julia Quinn Dempsey, legal counsel to the state board of education. "That opinion simply confused things."

Meanwhile, the Wheaton school district in suburban Chicago went to court, hoping to get the law overturned as unconstitutionally vague.

The law was upheld by the circuit court and the case is now on appeal before an appellate court. Left in the legal limbo are several key questions for school boards and teachers' unions.

The issue of whether the law is permissive or mandatory remains unsettled. The procedures for holding recognition elections continue to vary from one area of the state to another. And even the constitutionality of the law awaits a definitive ruling.

So virtually everyone wants some changes made in the law.

"Some additional legislation is needed to make the law workable," Ms. Dempsey says. "It's only a 33-line law and the unions would have you believe it's the National Labor Relations Act."

Yet, some want more changes than others.

"We will continue to work for a comprehensive bargaining bill," says Reg Weaver, president of the iea "Bargaining is here to stay."

"Some districts feel they don't want to 'abdicate' responsibility or they may be fearful of the bargaining process so they refuse to participate," Mr. Weaver says.

But those are districts generally in rural areas or smaller communities.

According to a 1981-82 survey by the state board, about half the state's 1,009 school districts have signed, negotiated contracts for teachers.

Those districts employ about 85 percent of the teachers in Illinois.

Mr. Weaver says the major thrust of his "comprehensive" approach will be provisions forcing school boards to negotiate with teacher representatives and giving teachers the right to strike.

That is similar to a measure--initially proposed by the Illinois Federation of Teachers (ift)--which was approved by the Illinois House but died without a vote in the Senate.

Mr. Weaver says the iea will "work with anyone" to secure passage of mandatory bargaining legislation.

But he also acknowledges that "there is competition" between his organization and the ift to write the legislation.

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