N.E.A. Still Urges Districts To Negotiate Jointly

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The failure of the first experiment nationally in which separate school districts negotiated jointly with their teachers has not weakened the National Education Association's support for the concept, according to nea officials.

Though the Wisconsin districts which had agreed to try joint bargaining abandoned the program last spring after three years, nea locals in Minnesota have continued to promote the idea, and it has been an issue in some two dozen teacher strikes throughout the state this fall. As part of its basic strategy, the Minnesota Education Association has decided to seek legislation through which teachers could compel school boards to bargain regionally or statewide.

For the past two years, say national officials of the teachers' union, they have worked with state and regional chapters to unite teachers in separate districts for the purpose of bargaining jointly with their school systems.

The efforts have focused particularly on Oregon, Minnesota, and Michigan, where there are many small, rural districts. Locals in those states have developed a variety of strategies, from combining local chapters into regional organizations with veto-power over negotiated settlements to presenting nearly-identical contracts to different school systems in the hope of affecting the pattern of settlements in a large area.

Three small school districts in northwest Wisconsin voluntarily took the unprecedented step of negotiating as a group in 1978. They negotiated a joint, three-year contract with their teachers. But last spring, when the time came to renegotiate those contracts, both teachers and school officials decided to abandon their revolutionary arrangement and return to traditional, individual contracts.

The parties involved in that experiment agree that several factors unique to their situation made the arrangement possible. They cited a recently-enacted state arbitration law, strong leadership on both sides, and a willingness to try new solutions to old problems.

Yet nea officials believe such joint efforts will increase around the country, despite the opposition of the American Federation of Teachers (aft), the second largest teachers' union, and national organizations representing school administrators and school boards.

"Our goal is to make the most effective use6of our resources," says John E. Dunlop, manager of negotiations for the nea, "and to bargain the best possible contract for our membership. Unlike the aft, which generally has chapters in large, metropolitan areas, we have hundreds of small, rural locals. And we often meet the same negotiators at different tables in neighboring districts.

"Combined bargaining, to whatever degree, makes sense for us," he adds. "And we think that, in the long run, it also makes sense for school districts."

nea officials cite the auto industry--where union officials representing workers at one of the 'Big Three' companies negotiate a master contract that is later adopted by the other companies--as the model of what they hope to achieve.

They argue that for each school board in America to bargain with each union local, however small, is simply inefficient. It would be more efficient, and less expensive, they assert, for both sides to combine forces and agree on one contract that would apply to teachers in a large number of districts.

Local autonomy is the foundation of education in America, countered the American Association of School Administrators in a recent report for its members on trends in collective bargaining. Multi-employer bargaining would destroy such autonomy, the report stated, upset the balance of power between teachers' unions and school boards, and be the first step toward regional consolidation of school districts.

aft officials say that the concept of multi-employer bargaining may be a logical approach in some industries but that it does not make sense in public education. While the organization encourages local chapters to share information on issues and strategies, its official position is that autonomous units can negotiate more effectively with individual school boards than they could if they were to bargain jointly.

"We have not seen anywhere where it has been successful," says Philip Kugler, an aft official in the area of union-organizing. "When you're dealing with school boards elected within defined, local boundaries, multi-employer bargaining is unrealistic."

The 1978 contract in Wisconsin was negotiated between the Northwest United Educators, an nea affiliate serving 30 districts in that part of the state, and three school boards whose teachers belong to the regional association. It contained a master agreement on non-economic issues and policies, with separate agreements in each district on salary and fringe benefits.

The participants in that historic agreement discount many of the traditional objections raised by both sides.

"The fear of loss of autonomy is greatly exaggerated," says Dr. Milton G. Kier, superintendent of the Unity school district.

Mr. Kier invited 15 neighboring school systems to participate in the experiment, but only two superintendents ultimately joined him. "If there was any part of a joint contract that the local district didn't want," he said, "it could be reserved for the separate talks."

John T. Coughlin, a labor lawyer for one of the largest firms in the state and the man who represented the school districts in those joint talks, says that both sides gained from the experiment. The teachers showed that multi-employer bargaining was feasible and wonsimilar contracts on monetary issues, he says, while school boards preserved their autonomy and benefitted from the teachers' desire to reach an agreement.

Despite those advantages, however, Mr. Coughlin does not expect the experiment to be repeated soon. "Perhaps it's an idea whose time has not yet come," he says. "Local control is a very emotional issue in this state. It was difficult then to hold the three boards together, and the chances that we could stay together again are slim."

Observers agree that a 1977 state law creating final, binding arbitration for unresolved negotiations in the public sector created a desire on both sides to try a new approach to negotiations. That law is also seen, however, as an excuse to abandon the experiment.

"Arbitration takes a lot of pressure off school boards," says Robert E. West, executive director of the Northwest United Educators. "It gives them a safety valve for issues they don't want to face, and it's a barrier against trying a creative approach to bargaining."

"Teachers have less incentive, too," he adds. "Why make a concerted, joint effort to gain something if there's a good chance the arbitrator will rule in your favor?"

Vol. 01, Issue 11

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