Teacher Union Collective Bargaining and Education Reform
By David Y. Denholm
In his farewell address
to the National Education Association convention, Keith Geiger, the outgoing
This brings me to Transformation
No.3 and our sledgehammer, the collective bargaining process. We need to
retool collective bargaining as the great engine driving change and innovation
in school districts all across America.
I know that many veterans
of past battles will fear the worst -- for instance, management using more
flexible contracts to run roughshod over school employees. These suspicions
run deep. But we are not talking here about sleeping with the enemy. We
are talking about waking up -- school boards, administrators, and association
leaders -- to our shared interest in revitalizing public education.
So allow yourselves to fantasize
for a moment. Imagine a school system where the traditional contract has
been shed like an outgrown skin. Imagine a district where the NEA local
controls nearly three-fourths of the school district budget, and uses that
power to create new teaching slots, set their own salaries, reduce class
sizes, and carve out a new preparation period.
Sound like utopia? Well, it's
not. I just described the contract negotiated by NEA members in New Albany/Floyd
County, Indiana. And, if our colleagues can do it there -- a district that
was notorious for bad union-management relations - then, clearly, we are
looking at a whole new world of possibilities.
In other words, under the NEA's view of
education reform, the union controls, the money and the jobs, not the elected
representatives of the people.
In the presentation I made at this
convention last year I stressed how important it was for school board members
to become familiar with the collective bargaining agreement in their district.
I noted that, all too frequently, teacher
union officials and even school administrators would misrepresent the terms
of the agreement as suited their purposes at the moment and that unless
board members were familiar with the contract, they might be deceived into
believing that they either must do something or could not do something.
These comments by Keith Geiger may
be a case in point. I have it on good authority that he may have seriously
misrepresented the teacher union contract in New Albany Floyd County, Indiana.
I'm still trying to obtain an actual copy of the agreement but school board
members ought to be very leery of the "Ah gee Mom, everybody's doing it"
appeal of teacher unions when they review teacher union contract demands.
This is not intended to persuade you
that the NEA and the AFT for that matter, don't intend to use the collective
bargaining "sledgehammer" to influence the course of education reform.
In response to overwhelming and irresistible
public demands for education reform, the NEA has launched a program called
the National Center for Innovation. The NCI consists of six "Teams":
Teacher Quality and Profession Building
District Quality Team (District-based
School-based Quality Team (School-based
NCI Connectors (Dissemination Team)
A review of the literature on these
NCI teams finds scant reference to collective bargaining. In fact, in most
cases, they don't even mention collective bargaining. There's a simple
reason for that. In the mind of many teacher union officials, collective
bargaining and the collective bargaining agreement is everything and it
would be redundant to mention it in connection with any of the above programs.
In recent years, many school board
members have complained to me about union contract provisions which have
tied the hands of the board on education reform issues. When I asked that
they send me a copy of the specific contract provisions for my files, I
rarely received a response.
All too often, the reason for this
isn't that the contract provision doesn't exist but that it is too innocuous
to be credible. Especially in dealing with education reform issues, school
boards must be very cautious about agreeing to contract provisions which
are seemingly harmless but which might come back to haunt them.
The perfect example of such a provision
would be one apparently intended to avoid an impasse. In Pennsylvania I
came across a contract with frequent reference to dealing with matters
as they arose "by mutual agreement." What the school board discovered,
much to its dismay after the contract was signed, was that the union had
no intention of "agreeing" to anything it didn't like and that as a result
of those few simple words, intended to avoid disputes, the board had given
the union virtual veto power over a wide variety of board actions.
Another contract phase to be leery
of is "past practices." If the union attempts to avoid conflict about the
contract language on a sensitive issue by simply referring to "past practices,"
you had better be very sure as to what those practices are. If you agree
to the language, you are agreeing essence, to maintaining the status quo.
This is particularly important for new board members who were elected by
a reform minded public.
This was a substantial issue in California
in making the transition from the Winton Act to the Rodda Act. Under the
Winton Act, a meet-and-confer statute, the scope of discussions was very
flexible because any agreement was reduced to a "memorandum of understanding"
which was then adopted as board policy -- a policy which the board could
unilaterally amend, if necessary. Under the Rodda Act, a collective bargaining
statute, agreements become legally binding contracts enforceable in a court
of law. Many boards were quite willing to "discuss" matters with union
representatives and then adopt board policy but found it to be another
thing entirely when asked to "negotiate" on the same matters for a legally
binding contract. At that stage, agreements to "past practices" in a contract
Also, in dealing with education issues
in a contract, be careful about language referring matters to committees.
It may be that in some prior action it was agreed that the majority of
members of the committee would be selected from a list provided by the
union. Dealing with education reform issues in a union contract by referring
the decision to a committee can be tantamount to turning the decision over
to the union, unless you are careful.
Teacher unions for years opposed every
meaningful education reform. Finally, in the face of overwhelming pressure
they dropped opposition in favor of co-option. If school boards now allow
unions to use the collective bargaining "sledgehammer" "as the great engine
driving change and innovation in school districts all across America,"
they will have only themselves to blame. Fortunately, the direction of
reform legislation dealing with teacher union collective bargaining has
been to reduce rather than to expand the scope of teacher union bargaining.