Republicans bent on reining in the power of Tennessee teachers’ unions faced a congregation of indignation in the Senate Education Committee Wednesday.
But that didn’t stop them from moving a measure to dissolve mandatory collective bargaining in the state’s public school systems.
Senate Bill 113 passed out of the GOP-dominated committee on a 6-3 party-line vote, despite a sea of scowls and murmurs of disapproval from the standing-room only audience of unionized teachers who organized a day away from their classrooms to attend the hearing.
“I believe with all my heart that mandatory collective bargaining stifles teacher input,” said Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who sponsored the bill. “Everything must pass through the funnel of a hyper-partisan, politically charged union whose primary objective is preservation of the union and its power, not the well-being of teachers and students.”
The Tennessee Education Association defended the current statutory arrangement, which requires that all schools with an organized labor union negotiate issues like teacher salary, working conditions, fringe benefits and grievance procedures with the union.
The TEA, with its 52,000 members, says erasing collective bargaining processes would create disarray.
“It does away with this process, and what you’re going to have is chaos,” TEA chief lobbyist Jerry Winters told committee members. “You may not like the TEA, and you may not like teacher unions, but to just say that every individual person is going to represent his or herself is just opening this process to something I don’t think anybody in this room really wants. People need a collective voice to express their concerns.”
TEA officials estimate that as many as 400 of their member teachers took a personal day off to travel to the Capitol and voice their concerns to state lawmakers. An occasional collective sigh could be heard inside the packed hearing room when TEA members disagreed with something they heard. Others gathered around a large TV outside the committee room cheered when Democrats or union officials spoke.
With robust Republican majorities in both chambers, GOP lawmakers are confident other bills in their package targeting the union’s influence will move in a deliberate fashion through the legislative process. Another measure would take away the TEA’s ability to appoint people to the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, which manages teachers’ pensions, and to the state’s financial literacy commission’s board of directors. Under both bills, the speakers in the House and Senate would make those selections.
Other measures seek to limit unions’ political muscle. One bill would ban public employees from directing part of their paycheck, “by payroll deduction or otherwise,” to “any membership organization which engages, directly or indirectly, in political activity.” Another would prohibit labor organizations from making campaign contributions through a political action committee.
Gov. Bill Haslam furthermore is expected to announce a handful of education reforms of his own Thursday, the last day to introduce new bills. It’s unclear what those proposals will look like, although Haslam has indicated he’s interested in changing teacher tenure rules and lifting the cap on charter schools, two reforms TEA has also fought for years.
Senate Bill 113 still has a long way to go before it can become law. But if it does, here is what it would change:
- The 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act, which stipulates the current rules for collective bargaining, would be erased from the law books.
- School districts with an organized union would no longer be required to negotiate with the union on labor contracts. However, school boards would have the option to negotiate with them, anyway.
- Educators could still belong to a teacher’s union.
- Teachers would still have a right to a labor strike as a member of an organized union, and the state’ existing rules for intervention and possible district-driven punishments would also remain intact.
- Existing teacher labor contracts would go untouched. Once those agreements expire, the district would not be required to use the union to negotiate a new contract.
- Each district would have to decide on its own how to approach labor contracts. They could keep the union set up, use school superintendents to reach agreements with individual teachers, have the local school board negotiate one-on-one with each educator or create a unique system from scratch.
According to the Tennessee School Boards Association, which authored the bill, 91 Tennessee school systems are currently mandated to hash out teacher contracts with a local labor union. Another 45 systems do not negotiate with unions because there is no established organized labor union in the district.
While the proposal would apply to all teachers’ unions, TEA officials contend stripping unions of their negotiating ability is really political payback for their not coughing up enough money to Republicans in the last election.
“That disgusts me,” said Sen. Andy Berke, a Chattanooga Democrat who tried to rally opposition to the bill on the committee floor and linked those politics to the legislation. “It’s not about kids. It’s not about collaboration. It’s not about bipartisanship. I don’t think it’s really about education.”