Published Online: February 7, 2011
Published in Print: February 9, 2011, as States Eye Curbs on Collective Bargaining by Teachers

States Aim to Curb Collective Bargaining

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 decisionmaking 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. ("Collective Bargaining Gets New Life in New Mexico," March 19, 2003.)

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.

Limitations on Negotiations

At least three states have proposed bills to curtail or eliminate teacher bargaining. other states could follow suit.

IDAHO

SPONSORS: State Superintendent Tom Luna, a Republican, has proposed two bills. At press time, they awaited a sponsor and bill numbers.

One billRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader would limit negotiations to wages and compensation and require such negotiations to be held in open meetings. It would disallow “continuation clauses” in contracts—essentially clearing all previous policies for each negotiation. A second billRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader would require school districts to post copies of their current school district budgets and collective bargaining pacts on their websites.

INDIANA

SB 575
SPONSORS: Sens. Phil Boots, (R), Luke Kenley (R), Ed Charbonneau (R)

The bill would remove certain items from collective bargaining negotiations, including teacher-evaluation procedures, teacher-dismissal procedures, and school restructuring options, among others. it also would permit districts to impose certain employment terms if the teachers’ contract expires without a new one in place. contracts could not extend beyond two years.

STATUS: Passed Senate committee on Pensions and Labor, Jan. 27

HB 1337
SPONSORS: Reps. Robert Behning (R), David Frizzell (R)

Similar to the Senate bill, it also would alter the teacher-evaluation framework and allow for the dismissal of tenured teachers for performance reasons.

STATUS: Referred to house committee on Education, Jan. 13

TENNESSEE

HB 0130
SPONSORS: Reps. Debra Maggart (R), Glen Casada (R)

The bill would prohibit teachers’ unions and other professional employees’ organizations from negotiating employment contracts with local school boards. Labor contracts signed before enactment of the bill would remain in force through their expiration.

STATUS: Filed for introduction, Jan. 18

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.”

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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.

Scope Narrowed

In Idaho, a proposal to limit collective bargaining is one of several companion bills pushed by state schools chief Tom Luna that would, among other actions, raise class sizes, unfreeze the teacher-salary grid, require the use of online learning, and phase out teacher tenure.

Mr. Luna said that cost-cutting wasn’t the only factor behind the proposals. He said that one goal is to allow school leaders to innovate by removing such measures as teacher evaluation, bell schedules, class size, and preparation time from the purview of negotiations.

“We need to empower local school boards and empower parents, and this is just one part of that,” he said. “We’re focusing on teaching more students at a higher level, and that comes down to changes we want to see to contracting.

“A newly elected school board member is surprised to find out that what they can do is circumscribed by things [the board] agreed to years and years and years ago in the contract,” he said, “and they’ve lost the ability to move in a new direction.”

A similar proposal in Indiana would also remove teacher evaluation, curriculum, and other such matters from the scope of bargaining, although one of the two bills would permit unions to continue to discuss them with administrators.

The idea has gained traction from other heavyweights in the education policy arena, including former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, whose new advocacy group, StudentsFirst, argues that teacher evaluation should be set only by administrators.

Teachers’ unions say the proposal would deprive teachers of a formal voice in policymaking.

“Something as simple as duty-free lunches presumably now would not be able to be bargained,” said John E. Rumel, the general counsel for the Idaho Education Association. “It basically takes the teachers’ voice out of discussion on workplace conditions.”

But Ms. Bryant of the NSBA countered that administrators can work in collaboration with teachers and their associations on education policy regardless of whether state laws prohibit teacher bargaining.

“Building a collaborative relationship happens at the local level,” she said. “It’s not something that happens by edict.”

Public Negotiations?

The Idaho proposals also add a new wrinkle to the debate. One of them would require negotiations over teachers’ wages and benefits to be held in public forums and for final pacts to be made available on districts’ websites. The idea, Mr. Luna said, is to make all decisions more transparent for taxpayers.

“Sunshine” laws on public-sector bargaining differ by state. Some, such as California, require only that initial proposals be made publicly available, while others require disclosure on certain proceedings. In states such as Idaho, teams representing the district and the union can agree to keep negotiating out of the public eye.

Labor experts contend that a proposal requiring public bargaining, if passed, could actually make it harder for the parties to reach an accord. The problem, Mr. Kerchner said, is that it could exacerbate internal disagreements within the two parties.

“You are going to have to compromise the interests of some of the people on your own side,” he noted.

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.”

Vol. 30, Issue 20, Pages 1,20

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Correction: 
A previous version of this story misidentified the location of the National School Boards Association.

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