Teaching Profession

Fed-Up Teachers in R.I. Town Say They Will Teach, But No More ‘Extras’

By Brenda Iasevoli — June 22, 2017 3 min read
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Teachers in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, have voted for a contract that they say was “forced upon them,” and in response have vowed not to perform many voluntary duties they had previously undertaken, and stick only to those spelled out in the contract.

“We will teach. We will continue to put East Greenwich students and families first, but we will no longer undertake the many extra activities we have historically done,” said Jo Anne Leach, East Greenwich Education Association negotiation committee chair, in a statement. “Just as the contract negotiated by the school committee reflects its situation, our decision reflects ours.”

The circumstances in East Greenwich illustrate the potential, and the perils, of a negotiating tactic that could be on the rise: “work-to-rule.” The term refers to a labor action that requires employees do no more than what is stipulated in their contracts in order to force concessions in a collective bargaining negotiation.

The new contract for East Greenwich teachers includes a 2 percent raise for all teachers in the second year of the contract, a 2.5-percent raise in the third year, and a switch to a high-deductible health plan beginning in January 2018. The East Greenwich school committee cites budget constraints as the reason for not providing teachers a more favorable contract.

The East Greenwich Education Association in a press release says the contract was approved “under duress as the school committee threatened further punitive measures if ratification did not take place.” (The Education Association could not be reached for further comment.)

East Greenwich school committee chair Carolyn Mark objected to that characterization. She told Education Week in an email that the terms were agreed upon by a majority of school committee and Education Association members after 18 months of negotiations. “To suggest that any punitive action was undertaken or contemplated by the school committee is highly unfair and inaccurate,” she wrote. “No one was coerced into voting to approve or reject the contract.”

While teachers may have agreed to the terms, they are determined to show their anger at the outcome. They say they will no longer perform any “extra” duties such as arranging field trips, tutoring after or before school beyond the one hour specified in the contract, advising student clubs, and working on any other after-school or extracurricular activities.

Work-to-rule is a tactic that Todd DeMitchell, a professor of education and justice studies at the University of New Hampshire, has seen crop up more often recently in teacher-contract negotiations. DeMitchell negotiated his share of contracts when he was a teacher in California, and he warns that work-to-rule doesn’t in and of itself bring about a contract, though it may be merely one element at work. (Teachers in Philadelphia this week approved a contract after four years of negotiating that included some schools using “work-to-rule.”)

In the case of East Greenwich, says DeMitchell, the idea of moving to work-to-rule after signing the contract doesn’t make much sense. He argues that in teacher-contract negotiations you have to stay with the bargaining until both sides have reached an agreement that’s acceptable.

“If you can’t live with it, don’t sign it,” he advises. “That goes for both sides.”

For their part, teachers in East Greenwich are using work-to-rule to demonstrate their worth, rather than as a bargaining chip for better contract terms. East Greenwich Education Association co-president Donna Hayes says the teachers’ decision to stop any activities not specified in their contract highlights the unpaid, voluntary contributions teachers make to their schools and students every day.

“While EGEA remains committed to ensuring their students are provided with multiple and varied classroom experiences that support student learning, we cannot afford to offer extra, voluntary services which enhance learning outside of the classroom or the school day,” she said in a statement.

In one sense, the measure of success of bargaining is not the contract, but the relationship that ensues after the ink is dry. With that tenet in mind, “work-to-rule” should be a last-resort measure, and unions should weigh it carefully because of the difficult position it puts teachers in, says DeMitchell.

“Work-to-rule is aimed at the central part of what schools do, which is education,” he said. “This puts teachers in a real bind, because the research is clear that one of the major motivations for pursuing a career in teaching deals with the relationships with children who will most certainly be impacted. Teachers become really conflicted, and could face backlash from the community who might see the action as doing harm to kids.”

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