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 president, said:

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 (Adults Team)

Student Team

District Quality Team (District-based Change Team)

School-based Quality Team (School-based Change Team)

NCI Connectors (Dissemination Team)

Administration 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 were crippling.

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.

David Denholm is the president of the Public Service Research Foundation, a research and education foundation concerned about the impact of unionism in government on government and union influence on public policy. Other papers by Mr. Denholm include:

Beyond Public Sector Unionism: A Better Way

The Impact of Unionism on the Quality of Public Education

Confronting Teacher Union Power

How a School Board Member Can Use a Union Agency Fee to Drive a Wedge Between Teachers and Unions

To request copies or more information, please contact: David Denholm, President at info@psrf.org, or send a written request to:

Public Service Research Foundation
320-D Maple Avenue East
Vienna, Virginia 22180
Phone (703) 242-3575
Fax (703) 242-3579