School & District Management

Should Teachers Be Able to Negotiate Their Own Contracts?

By Madeline Will — April 22, 2019 4 min read
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Just over a third of teachers say they would prefer to negotiate salary and benefits for themselves, according to a newly released survey from a group that advocates for choice in union membership.

And teachers under the age 35 are significantly more likely than older teachers to want to negotiate their own contract.

The group Teacher Freedom, which provides information on how to opt out of union membership, surveyed 2,000 teachers last spring in 22 states that were affected by the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision. (A polling company conducted the survey through an online opt-in panel in which members sign up to take surveys in exchange for rewards.)

The Supreme Court had ruled last year that teachers do not have to pay “agency” or “fair share” fees to a union if they are not members, making it easier for teachers to cut ties from their union altogether. Currently, unions bargain on behalf of all teachers in a district, regardless of whether teachers choose to be members. The agency fees that unions charged before the Supreme Court decision were meant to defray the cost of collective bargaining.

While the Janus case was not focused on collective bargaining, Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion that the unions’ right to serve as an exclusive representative of workers in a bargaining unit is a “significant impingement on associational freedoms that would not be tolerated in other contexts.” A few subsequent lawsuits challenging unions’ role as the sole bargaining agent for all workers have been filed.

While the largest share of teachers in the Teacher Freedom poll—46 percent—say they would not want to negotiate their contract, there was a stronger interest in younger teachers to bargain independently of the union.

Nearly half of teachers under 35 said they would want to negotiate their own contract, compared to 31 percent of teachers who are older than 35. Income level also played a role: Just about half of teachers who make less than $50,000 a year would like to negotiate their own salary, compared to 28 percent of teachers who make more than that.

“A collective bargaining agreement is a lot like a big cable package,” said Colin Sharkey, the executive director of the Association of American Educators, a national professional organization for educators that is the largest supporter of the Teacher Freedom group.

Just as millennials are cutting the cable cord in favor of streaming services, he said, “it’s not as ingrained in them to have one-size-fits-all bargaining.”

He said teachers tend to think they could benefit financially if they were able to negotiate their own salary. Right now, salaries are determined on a step-and-lane schedule that applies to teachers across the district—teachers receive raises for years of service and degrees earned. But Sharkey said some teachers who work in hard-to-staff subjects, like high school science, want the opportunity to negotiate higher pay.

Other teachers say they want a chance to argue for a pay raise based on their performance in the classroom, Sharkey said. Also, he said, younger teachers might not stay in the profession as long as their predecessors, so the step-and-lane salary schedule wouldn’t necessarily make financial sense for them.

A ‘Can of Worms’

After the Janus decision, labor expert Bradley Marianno told Education Week that getting rid of the exclusive representation clause would open up a “can of worms.”

“That’s been a theoretical argument in the labor literature, what would happen if you got rid of exclusive representation?” he said. "...[W]e would see a plethora of different labor organizations representing different factions of teachers.”

Tom Israel, the director of state affiliate growth for the National Education Association’s Center for Organizing, said it’s a “fantasy” for an individual teacher to think she can successfully negotiate her salary successfully without the help of a union.

If one teacher asks the district superintendent for a pay raise, Israel said, she can be turned down and then have no other recourse. But if every employee in the district asks for a pay raise, the superintendent has to pay attention, he said.

“Teachers have greater strength through collection action,” he said. “The employer doesn’t hold all of the cards.”

The Teacher Freedom survey also found that 34 percent of teachers would like the option of a 401(K) retirement plan, which is based on individual investment decisions, instead of a pension, which is based on a formula. (Another third of teachers said they were neutral or didn’t know.) Younger teachers and teachers who make less than $50,000 a year were more likely to want the option of a 401(K) plan.

Research has found that pension plans leave all but the longest-serving teachers without adequate retirement savings. About 85 percent of teachers are enrolled in a typical pension plan, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.

Clarification: This post was updated to clarify Teacher Freedom’s views on unions.

Image via Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.

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