New Dilemmas in The Ritual of Bargaining

By Susan Walton — September 07, 1981 2 min read

In a year of budget-cutting, financial crisis, and reductions in teaching positions for school systems across the nation, the rituals of collective bargaining pose new dilemmas.

Teachers, say union leaders, face conflicting loyalties to their students and to their own professional well-being. And the air-traffic controllers’ strike is exerting an influence-- though difficult to quantify over virtually all government-employee negotiations, according to representatives from both sides of the table. In Boston, school Superintendent Robert R. Spillane has threatened to fire teachers who strike.

But reports from around the country suggest that, with a few notable exceptions, money is still the most important issue.

“Teachers are going to be perfectly aware that school boards are legitimately out of money,” says a spokesman for the National Education Association (N.E.A.) the larger of the two national unions. But, he adds, there are other non-economic issues that must be negotiated as well.

A check on negotiations around the country suggests that districts handle their dilemmas differently, depending on the funds available and the chemistry between the teachers and the school board. But within the diversity, some common themes emerge:

  • Money: As one organizer for the American Federation of Teachers (A.F.T.) said, ''Money is still an item.” In Buffalo, N.Y., teachers rated salary “above and beyond everything else” in importance.
  • Job security: Teachers in districts where enrollment declines suggest there will be major layoffs may try to get no-layoff clauses, even if it costs them other gains.
  • Professional issues: Negotiated as “nonmoney items,” issues like control over the curriculum are more likely to appear on the bargaining table.
  • Contract and legal issues: Districts with no “master contract” from which to negotiate are working hard to get one. Ravenna and Mariemont, Ohio, both struck over this issue last year.
  • Breach of contract: Financially embarrassed school districts in Boston and Philadelphia are trying to fire many teachers in mid-contract, and in Philadelphia, to renege on a negotiated 10-percent raise. “Job actions” may occur in both cities, although both have valid contracts with their teachers.

Officials from both the A.F.T. and the N.E.A. point to the danger of drawing too many generalizations about negotiations this year. But they acknowledge that the generally straitened state of public education has caused them to change their tactics at the bargaining table.

While it may be true that most districts are strapped for cash, “it isn’t safe to say there is no money anywhere,” according to N.E.A. general counsel Robert H. Chanin. Many union locals know that the district has little money and, Mr. Chanin says, ''most locals don’t push for money that isn’t there.

“Fifteen years ago,” he notes, “our aim was to find and redirect money that was there during the negotiations, or force the board to increase taxes or take unpopular positions.” Today, if there is little money to fight over, the union goals assume a different shape.

“You’re into a new kind of bargaining now,” said Philip Kugler, a special assistant to the president of the A.F.T.

“In the past, you could pretty well expect that there was money somewhere, whether it was in the city, county, or state,” he said. “If you went out on strike, the money would come. Now you’re not sure that the money is there or that if it is, management knows where it is.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1981 edition of Education Week