A Better Bargain

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For nearly three decades now, collective bargaining has defined the relationship between organized teachers and district officials. All too often, this relationship has been a hostile one and the institutionalized rancor has impeded collaboration and reform.

It's time to consider new and different models of labor-management relations that are more conducive to collaboration and less adversarial.

Typically, this has been our experience and pattern in Rochester, N.Y., as well. During each negotiation period, the district and the teachers' union were locked in a prolonged struggle over salaries, benefits, class size, school safety, management rights, and so many other important issues. And on this scenic route to an eventual compromise, the entire community would be brought to the edge of a nervous breakdown before somebody figured out how to bring an end to it all. Until the next time, that is.

There are significant problems with the current approach to collective bargaining. It emphasizes precision that impedes flexibility and often serves to reinforce barriers to cooperation. It assumes that adversarial is natural and arguably genealogical, that everything must be standardized, and that just because all is even, then it must be fair. And perhaps worst of all, the current mode relegates negotiations to a once-in-a-while battle—after intervening years of planned inattention.

The positional and adversarial approach to negotiations has been increasingly yielding to so-called interest-based bargaining, based on three key principles: focusing on issues, not on personalities; using reason to make decisions, not power; and focusing on interests, not on positions. This collaborative, problem-solving way is clearly an improvement. It can lead teachers' unions to view the educational and instructional programs as union business, and can lead both labor and management to commit to look at issues through the lens of what is educationally best for their students, who, lest we forget, are the reason for our professional existence.

Just because it can't be done easily does not mean that it can't be done.

But can the collective-bargaining process be an effective tool for enhancing learning opportunities for students? Can we free ourselves from the traditional, albeit myopic adherence to the predictable and unexamined practices? Can we finally recognize that what is familiar is not necessarily natural? Can labor- management relations and collective bargaining be conducted in a way that adheres to high standards and be more responsible and more responsive to students' needs?

Our answer is yes. But it requires forging an entirely different set of relationships and a different ethic in how unions and school districts deal with one another. After all, genuine collaboration can exist only in an atmosphere of trust between equal partners. But trust is rarely something that we begin with; at best, we end up with trust. To get there, the best way is to accumulate a history of shared successes. The stakes are too high to do otherwise. Parents and political and business leaders, among others, know too well the casualties and costs associated with sound-bite bargaining. And collaboration does not mean just congeniality. It must be substantive, with the goal of turning goodwill into results.

Here in Rochester, we have sought to do just that, and to move even beyond the interest-based model of collective bargaining. Together, the district and the teachers' union developed strategic objectives and engaged in joint problem-solving. By changing the process and by expanding the scope of collective bargaining to include educational and instructional issues, we have negotiated a "living contract" that includes a commitment to do the following:

  • Adopt "what's best for students" as the shared value, the common denominator, and the litmus test for any specific proposal advanced by either the district or the union.
  • Conduct ongoing negotiations as timely problem-solving rather than something relegated to a once-in-a-while mode.
  • View collective bargaining as collaboration rather than positional and adversarial fights.
  • Establish standards, benchmarks, and formulas that would serve both parties well and would continue to guide us beyond the life of any individual negotiations.
  • Use the collective bargaining process to build a more genuine profession for teachers and more effective schools for all our students.

Many important issues of mutual interest will be surely addressed through the living contract. Like the whole question of "customizing" additional time in a flexible way to meet the instructional needs of each individual student. Or a collaborative plan to develop a critical mass of National Board for Professional Teaching Standards- certified teachers in our schools. For that matter, the living contract will be our vehicle for addressing, in a timely and cooperative way, issues that may not have surfaced yet, but cannot and need not await the expiration of our existing contract before we give them our attention. As a matter of principle, living contracts may serve as an opportunity to bring greater coherence, where appropriate, between policies, practices, and provisions.

All too often, the relationship between organized teachers and district officials has been a hostile one.

Could this actually work in our district? We believe that it can. And while this approach is not yet widespread, it has a proven track record in Hammond, Ind. There, the notion of a living contract was introduced and negotiated way back in 1990. In their search for greater labor-relations stability, the parties in Hammond included in their contract language that would enable them to respond more quickly to issues that demand immediate attention, while working within the framework of collective bargaining. Section 39.2 of the Hammond contract states: "It is the intent of the parties to create a living document to which additions, modifications, or amendments may be made whenever the parties deem it appropriate and desirable." And while it has not always been easy and not without its share of challenges, this approach has worked well in Hammond for over a decade, and counting. With mutual trust, goodwill, and hard work to develop and sustain strong relationships, it should work in Rochester, too.

Already, the spirit of the living contract has set a constructive tone and has begun to serve us well. For the first time since 1987, it has yielded us a successor agreement before the opening of schools; it included additional time for instruction, while substantially reducing time at unnecessary meetings; and it has made us more competitive in our goal of attracting and retaining teachers by offering tuition reimbursement for master's degrees and by raising teachers' salaries to the average of the five highest-paying districts in Monroe County, N.Y. Most important, we are no longer negotiating contracts that are set in stone until their expiration date. Instead, we can now anticipate issues and are free to address them in a timely manner.

By eschewing the "them and us" mind-set, the new and more flexible approach will nurture the necessary trust and commitment that promotes respect and collaboration for the benefit of all our students. More importantly, it promotes the kind of partnership and dynamics that could change the very culture of labor-management relations. The purpose of all this is to improve learning opportunities for all our students. In this way, it pays attention to both the bottom line and the horizon.

But challenges remain. It is not easy to change the culture of collective bargaining, nor would it suffice to sustain the collaboration only at the central level. We must now find effective strategies to extend labor-management collaboration to where it matters most: at each and every one of our schools. And just because it can't be done easily does not mean that it can't be done. If we succeed, we will increase our joint capacity to build a more genuine profession for teachers and more effective schools for all our students.

It's time to consider new and different models of labor-management relations that are more conducive to collaboration and less adversarial. Our mutual responsibility is to do all we can to ensure that all our students succeed.

Vol. 20, Issue 37, Pages 38-39, 52

Published in Print: May 23, 2001, as A Better Bargain
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