Education Opinion

Teacher Negotiation Reform: Beating Swords Into Ploughshares

By Patrick Ledesma — July 04, 2012 3 min read
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Teacher leadership can take many forms. Some teachers lead within their schools and districts. Others lead within their unions and professional organizations. With the National Education Association Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly occurring this week, Steve Owens, an occasional guest blogger here, writes about his efforts to improve student learning through his union work.

Steve is a National Board Certified Teacher and union leader from Vermont. His opinions are his alone, and do not represent the views of any organization with which he is affiliated. He writes about progressive unionism and education policy on his blog, Education Worker

The second United States Department of Education Labor Management Collaboration Conference (LMC) convened in Cincinnati last month, with a theme of harnessing the power of collaboration to advance student achievement. I attended the last conference in Denver as a researcher, part of a team of Teaching Ambassador Fellows, and had the opportunity to network with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), which promotes sound and stable labor-management relations.

Back in Vermont, in 2011 I was entering my fourth cycle as a negotiator and second as local president. Our negotiations had always been protracted and contentious, requiring thousands of hours of teacher and school board member time. The traditional process goes through a predictable sequence: bargaining, impasse, mediation, fact finding, crisis buildup, and, in rare instances, imposition and strike. Mediation and fact finding employ private consultants costing thousands of dollars. Boards often call on private attorneys to negotiate, the costs of which often exceed the amount needed to settle the economic issues.

This scenario is repeated dozens of times all over Vermont. Each negotiation is for a small number of teachers by national standards, resulting in minor changes to “mature contracts.” It is a time consuming and costly way to preserve the status quo.

Our previous negotiation had required at least 200 hours of each of the ten teachers on our team. The board commitment was similar. Rancor adds no value. Unions, boards and administration should be partners in the cause of student learning, but are instead trapped in a ritualistic process.

I returned from Denver determined that our pending negotiation would be collaborative, and facilitated by FMCS. It took months of persuasion - one board member could not believe that FMCS services were free. Finally, a pair of skilled FMCS mediators trained both teams together in the techniques of Interest Based Bargaining.

We invested in success. The results?

  • Zero dollars spent on a board attorney, mediators or fact finders
  • Settlement will be achieved in 6 months rather than 18
  • Team members expending 60 hours rather than 200+
  • No rancorous crisis buildup
  • A labor-management committee to deal with issues as they emerge.
  • Respect between board and teachers, a result of “tough minded collaboration.”

Is this process reform sustainable? Can it become a template for our state?

An innovation of this year’s LMC is critically important in answering these questions: the presence of state leadership teams, both as presenters and participants. Three states, Delaware, Kentucky and Massachusetts, presented. Their teams highlighted work they have done to support local collaboration.

Vermont sent a team of statewide leaders. We need structures and supports at the state level to sustain and expand the collaborative work already happening at the local level. I am confident that our state leaders found inspiration and practical ideas at the conference.

Process reform is not enough. Sustainability depends on connecting to a greater goal: excellent student learning. In Vermont, dealing proactively with contemporary policy challenges requires this focus. Collective bargaining agreements must shift away from emphasis on salary and working conditions, management prerogative and taxation, and become education improvement plans in which the traditional concerns become tools.

The tremendous civic engagement which goes into our teacher negotiations in Vermont is a gold mine of effort and commitment which could be harnessed to the cause of great student learning.

Our children deserve no less.

The opinions expressed in Leading From the Classroom are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.