Thursday, March 24, 2011

Collective Bargaining Rights--Now a NH Issue

While it is tempting to write about what really consumes our teacher minds, like why at 2 pm there are no used paper towels in the boys' bathroom garbage, as reported to me by a male colleague (eeew), there are greater issues at hand that we must attend to.

Two nights ago the House Finance Committee adopted language into the state budget around 6 pm with no prior notice that effectively ends collective bargaining for state employees.  The language reads, "For any collective bargaining agreement entered into by the parties after the effective date of this paragraph, if the impasse is not resolved at the time of the expiration of the parties' agreement, the terms of the collective bargaining agreement shall cease and all employees subject to the agreement shall become at-will employees whose salaries, benefits, and terms and conditions of employment shall be at the discretion of the employer."

After spending a great deal of time reading up on the Wisconsin debate, I am aware of a couple of things:  First of all, 61% of the public support collective bargaining (Gallup and USA Today Polls). Seven percent are unsure.  And the other 32% are angry and vocal. Secondly, when talking about collective bargaining, the conversation does not tend to be linear.  It branches out into other areas, sending us off topic, confirming the need for these rights and reminding us that reform is not easy.

Those who are against collective bargaining are seeing this as a means to reform schools.  But when we talk about educational reform, a plethora of issues arise.  How much do we pay teachers compared to other countries?  What does an effective teacher look like and how does s/he get compensated?  How are teachers evaluated?  What is the most effective class size?  What curriculum best suits our children?  How do we prepare teachers for the classroom?  How do we attract the best and brightest college students into the profession? We don't know...but we do know that collective bargaining doesn’t really have anything to do with these issues, and so the anger at teachers because of their collective bargaining rights is misdirected.

Collective bargaining ensures decent working conditions and fair pay.  It has a trifold effect, benefiting employees, employers, and the general work force.  Because of collective bargaining, arbitrary and unilateral actions against teachers are eliminated.  Protocols for grievances are set into place, and prompt and fair responses occur.  Employers have a starting point for resolving issues with employees, and can be more effective in handling conflict.  Channels of communication are opened and teachers play a more active role in decision making, collaborating with their administrator.  Because of collective bargaining undertaken by unions, the standards for all jobs have been raised.  Laws that involve child labor, the 40 hour work week, social security, unemployment insurance, minimum wage, and health and safety standards all derive from the work of collective bargaining.

Some opponents will say that these are items of the past and that unions are outdated, but really--if we lose the right to bargain with our employers, is there anything in place that will assure that we will not revert to old ways?  We are a nation who has a difficult time learning from history.  Furthermore, when you are dealing with public servants such as teachers, who exactly is the employer that makes the decisions under this bill?  The principal?  School board?  Superintendent?  Voters?  As a taxpayer, I would feel more comfortable knowing that my teachers were being paid, evaluated, and hired or fired because of a deliberate bargaining agreement that has been thoroughly discussed and negotiated by a number of stakeholders than by an administrator who does not need to account for his or her actions.

Lest you think me a hardcore supporter, I am the first to admit that unions are not perfect. I battle over the pros and cons of being a member each year before I sign my membership forms. In this time of scrutiny and unrest, teacher unions, in particular, need to self-assess and think about reinventing themselves. Perhaps the unions we needed when child labor and work week laws were instituted are outdated.  The NEA and the AFT need to consider what a 2011 teacher union should look like, and local chapters should drive this reform by boldly negotiating contracts that are more trusted by the public. Flexibility has been lost, and rigidity interferes with reform. While teachers need the support and protection of our unions, at times we have found too much, and we have all witnessed incidents when adults were protected at the cost of what is best for students.  But these instances are rare, and when they crop up, they often illuminate bad administrative actions, rather than bad unions. Yet, administrators are rarely called under such scrutiny.

Proponents for better schools need to focus on being constructive—reform can be radical, but it still needs to be propelled by reason and not anger.  And the reform needs to be focused on what is really the issue, and I assure you, collective bargaining is not the downfall of education. 

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