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Collective Bargaining for the 21st Century

By John Wilson — November 14, 2011 3 min read
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To my union friends, I have one message, “Wake up and smell the coffee!”

The latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll is the proverbial “canary in the coal mine.” When 47 percent of the general public says unions hurt public education, something is not working. It could be public relations or systemic. I vote for the latter, and I suggest the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) transform the heart of unionism--collective bargaining.

Yes, the world has changed and collective bargaining needs to change as well. Using an industrial age tactic in a knowledge-based economy is not working, and the public wants better. We are over a decade into the 21st century, and we need 21st century collective bargaining. What if a contract negotiated through collective bargaining required a quality preschool education for every child of poverty? What if that contract also required an intervention or two for every 3rd grader who was unable to read? What if it forbids school employees from being enablers to students dropping out of school? It is time for collective bargaining to become collective wisdom.

Twenty-first century collective bargaining must be student-centered. When management and union leaders come together, the filter for both sides should always be the well-being and academic success of the students. If that is not the case, then take it off the table.

Twenty-first century collective bargaining must have expanded scope of bargaining. Tap into the wisdom of teachers and education support professionals to know what is best for students. How silly is it to limit bargaining to salary, benefits, and working conditions and then complain about employees caring more about themselves? Expand the scope and you will find that educators care mostly about their students.

Twenty-first century bargaining must be collaborative. Adversarial bargaining has passed its time. Collaboration is a 21st century skill that is as relevant at the bargaining table as it is in the schoolhouse.

Twenty-first century bargaining must be evidence-based. We have too much access to data not to use it in our decision-making. While we need a lot more of quality education research, we should not ignore the current research. I believe that is tantamount to malpractice.

Twenty-first century bargaining must be flexible. To believe that every school needs a “one-size-fits-all” contract is absurd. Schools that are high poverty may have different needs than schools that are affluent. Develop a process for school-based decision-making and trust the employees to do what is in the best interest of their students.

Twenty-first century bargaining needs parent and public involvement. While I know that can be scary, contracts are stronger when parents feel invested. Whether it is through surveys, open forums, or in the ratification process, all are better served when all stakeholders know the contract and are committed to it.

Last week in Ohio, the public made it clear that they support collective bargaining rights for teachers and education support professionals. Today, unions and management must make clear that they will use those collective bargaining rights for the public good. If they are successful in creating 21st century collective bargaining, more than a million teachers and education support professionals currently without the right to bargain will be able to have a pathway to future rights or at least a collaborative process that gives them a stronger voice in their profession and the success of their students.

I welcome your additions to my elements of 21st century bargaining, and I would love for you to share with me examples of labor-management agreements that reflect these elements.

If you want your school district to engage in 21st century bargaining, bring the parties together and start the conversation. Whether you have bargaining rights or not, change the process of your advocacy to be student-centered. Let me know how that works for you.

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