4.10.2015 – Teachers’ Strikes, Collective Bargaining, and Arbitration

We witnessed an interesting series of events this week in relation to H.76, a bill regarding collective bargaining, teachers’ strikes, and arbitration. Our normal committee process was turned somewhat upside down and the ensuing mess was an indication of why we should stick with good process.

It might be helpful to explain why we did things differently. An agreement was made between House leadership and the sponsors of H.76 that if they did not try to amend it to H.361, the major education funding, spending, and governance bill, it would get a hearing on the House Floor.

It might also be helpful to understand why the legislation was proposed in the first place. There have been a relatively small number of teachers’ strikes over the last several decades but, in some cases, they have been extremely contentious and disruptive for children, families, teachers, and communities. There was a desire to put an end to these strikes but there was recognition that the solution had to be balanced and that there was a need to ultimately resolve differences.

H.76, as presented on the Floor proposed to prohibit teachers and school administrators from striking and school boards from imposing contracts but there was no process for finality.

The unusual nature of this situation was that the committee that should have taken the lead is the House General, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee. They had actually taken 15 hours of testimony on the subject but viewed the bill unfavorably, voting it out 5-3-0 opposed to passage. The House Education Committee voted in out favorably 8-3-0 and took the lead presenting it on the Floor.

In general, when the parties to a contract cannot reach an agreement through negotiation, mediation, and fact-finding, our processes point to an imposed finality. This is really arbitration and it can take several forms. Many people, including the VT-NEA, think of binding arbitration as the process by which the parties at impasse go through the American Arbitration Association for identification of a neutral third party, which then imposes a solution. Vermont’s municipal employees have this form of finality. The Legislature is the final form of resolution for state employees – it’s called the Pay Act. State college faculty goes to the VT Labor Relations Board (VLRB) in a process that involves each party submitting their last best offer (a package of items) to the VLRB, which then chooses one of the packages in its entirety over the other.

Early in the debate an amendment was offered by Rep. Martin Lalonde that would have prohibited strikes and the imposition of contracts and then would have created a “Task Force on Dispute Resolution in Labor Relations for Teachers and Administrators to study possible statutory changes to improve the process for the resolution of a dispute or impasse during labor negotiations for Vermont school teachers and administrators without requiring that a dispute or impasse be submitted to mandatory binding interest arbitration”. The amendment did not, however, provide for a form of finality and the task force would have been looking for a solution without binding arbitration. Without the looming possibility of binding arbitration nothing would have been left in place to give incentive to contract negotiations. This was viewed as unsatisfactory to a narrow majority of House members and was defeated.

Rep. Willem Jewett subsequently offered a strike all amendment that proposed the creation of a “Task Force on Dispute Resolution in Labor Relations for Teachers and Administrators to study the issue of impasse resolution in labor negotiations for school teachers and administrators”, which left everything on the table for discussion. He felt the Lalonde amendment put the cart before the horse and that the study should be done first. This amendment did pass and became the entirety of the bill. The following day, on third reading it was voted down so nothing ended up going to the Senate.

All of this discussion bought up some larger issues for me. The attempt to take away the right to strike, as well as a process for finality is disheartening. Perhaps, it is because my sister was an elementary school teacher before she retired. Over the years, the responsibilities she had to shoulder increased. She told me of a third-grade student who had attended 11 different schools; the students who came to school unfed, unclean, and improperly dressed; and the increased amount of paperwork and red tape that needed to be done and hoops that needed to be jumped through.

My sister is one of the most thoughtful and caring people I know. She took pleasure in going to tag sales and buying clothes that were in good shape, which she then laundered and gave to students who needed them. She was always doing extra, thoughtful things for her students and to this day, former students who see her in town make a point to say hi and thank her. She, however, could no longer stand the baloney and retired early.

We ask our teachers to do what I consider to be the hardest and most important job in the State and they deserve to be paid a fair wage. Teachers’ strikes are disruptive and something to be avoided but to take away their right to strike, as well as the possibility for a finality process, is unfair.

It would have been helpful to have a task force look at this complicated problem and potentially make recommendations about how things could be improved. My guess is that this issue will come back again and further insight would have been helpful.