Don’t Eliminate Teacher Unions—Improve the Process
PART 5 OF 6
Politicians and education reformers are blasting teacher unions suggesting that they are preventing necessary educational improvements.
Based on more than forty years of study and first-hand experience with the issue, I offer this six part series on the problems and benefits of union engagement in education concluding with suggested actions to improve traditional approaches to bargaining and a politically more problematic approach for engaging all concerned.
In previous parts of this series I noted some examples of problems and benefits associated with collective bargaining and education. In this fifth part I offer some suggestions for improving the traditional bargaining process.
Suggestions for Improvement of the Traditional Processes
Because of benefits from the process and in spite of problems, it is neither wise to eliminate collective bargaining for teachers or to retain it without changes. Depending on the courage and foresight of leaders, we can take one of two approaches. We can make needed changes in conventional approaches or we can venture into more radical changes. In this posting I consider three kinds of changes to the traditional process that are the minimal ones needed to ensure balance of power between labor and management if we are to pay attention to the health and quality of schooling of our children: improving the information base, increasing participants’ skills, and improving the means of resolving impasses.
1. Information base
As noted previously, information used for much decision making regarding a wide-range of educational issues is notoriously unreliable. Many labor disputes arise from distrust of management-provided data regarding school district finances. (There are similar problem decisions by legislators as a consequence of poor information about everything from finance to student outcomes including confusing and questionable data concerning dropouts, disciplinary action, and class size.) Without accurate, trustworthy information we will continue to have bad decisions by negotiators and policy makers.
Improved education of administrators in school finance and data systems, strengthened oversight by politically independent school boards, and improved auditing by states along with better definition of standards for information gathering are needed. It would also help if some of the technology experts who are bent on explaining how to improve education would, instead, concentrate on providing better tools for schools to use in gathering and analyzing data.
2. Skilled participants
Since the 1960’s some progress has been made in improving the skills of the people who engaged in collective bargaining for both unions and management. However, the continued bashing of unions and the bargaining process during the first decade of the 21st century and the continued usurpation of local power by state and federal officials, increases the need for skilled negotiators for both sides of the table.
States should provide training and support for people who are involved in these important roles. As changes are made to improve the laws and regulations governing collective bargaining, these sessions should go beyond general conflict and dispute resolution training to include specifics related to the new laws.
3. Conflict resolution
Three actions are needed to improve resolution of impasses in bargaining.
Mediation: Most states that have collective bargaining processes for teachers include mediation as one means of resolving conflicts. Mediation processes now spelled out in state laws need to be examined and strengthened as appropriate.
Unfortunately, there are too few mediators who not only know how to nudge people toward agreements but understand the consequences of bargaining decisions for the educational enterprise. A cadre of such individuals needs to be developed.
Strikes and lockouts with consequences: Within the private sector the union’s right to strike – to withhold services— and management’s right to lock out employees are recognized parts of the process that legitimates each party’s power at the table.
Offsetting those rights for unions is the loss of income and benefits that employees can experience during a strike. Management’s power is limited by its willingness or ability to continue its production without striking employees or to take whatever financial losses may come from being closed during a strike or its counter-part the management lock-out.
In education the equalizing powers are not present. For teachers, because of laws requiring set numbers of days of instruction for students, there is seldom a significant loss of pay from a strike and school districts seldom lose money from either the state or local funding sources. The loss tends to fall on the community and its students who are at least inconvenienced by the schedule changes. At worst parents are out additional expenses such as those for child care and students may be hindered in their pursuit of possible rewards such as scholarships.
The historic resolution to these circumstances has been for courts (or legislatures) to deny teacher unions the right to strike. (I remember an NEA attorney telling me a number of years ago that they would continue to take their right to strike to the courts until one day they found a judge who would agree with them.)
An alternative that should be considered would be to legalize strikes and prescribe that those striking may not have their lost salary or benefits made up and districts may not receive funding for days in which school is closed during a strike. Under such provisions both union and districts would still have to provide the full number of days of schooling required by state law but they would have to do so without funds for days lost due to job actions.
Arbitration: Finally, because schooling for the young should not be disrupted long term while adults settle differences, if a strike, lock-out, or other job action (work-to-rules, slow down, etc.) lasts more than two weeks, the impasse should be referred to a specially trained arbitrator who would be required to approve the last best offer from either the union or the school district (much the same way special arbitrators decide on salary proposals in professional baseball).
Ultimately, such change in conventional bargaining arrangements are more promising ways of improving union-school district relationships than the heavy handed union bashing legislation being put forward by various states. However, as I will suggest in the final part of this series, there may be more productive ways of approaching the matter.