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That Was Then, This Is Now

Jimmy Naifeh, a 36-year veteran of the Tennessee General Assembly and House speaker for 18 of those years, is among the most vocal Democratic legislators opposing GOP efforts to limit or eliminate collective bargaining for public school teachers.

But this isn’t the first time the crafty Covington lawmaker has figured prominently in Tennessee’s tug-of-war between workers’ rights and respecting local school board autonomy.

He has, however, switched sides on the issue.

The legislation currently in the Tennessee General Assembly — the House version of which is scheduled for a vote on the chamber floor this evening — is an attempt to rein in or repeal the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act, a law that forces local school districts to bargain with unions when certain thresholds of teacher support are met. (UPDATE: The House on Monday put off voting on HB130 until Thursday.)

Under the terms of the 1978 law, still in effect today, when those conditions are met, a “professional employees’ organization” is awarded sole and formal negotiating authority to “(deal) with boards of education concerning, but not limited to, grievances, wages, hours of employment or conditions of work.”

The 1978 act was designed “to protect the rights of individual employees in their relations with boards of education, and to protect the rights of the boards of education and the public in connection with employer-employee disputes affecting education,” according to Tennessee state code.

When 30 percent of teachers in a district demand a vote to be unionized — and a majority of those teachers voting in the special election choose a union to represent them — then that union is awarded the designation as the district’s “exclusive representative” for teachers. That role gives the union sole privileges to negotiate on behalf of all teachers in the district. With that state-mandated recognition comes the power to exclude from labor discussions with the school board any and all competitors and individuals who wish to negotiate alternative or competing agreements.

The Act passed when Naifeh was in his fourth year as a state representative. The Senate passed it on a 20-10 vote. The House passed it 60-38. It was signed on March 10, 1978 by Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton, who, according to a Tennessean article written the next day, “made a surprise visit” to a Tennessee Education Association convention in Nashville so that teachers could witness him officially make it law.

But Naifeh was by no means then the champion of mandatory collective bargaining that he is now.

In fact, Naifeh and then-state Rep. John Tanner were “viciously opposed” to giving unions the power to force collective bargaining with local school districts, said Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, who was present at the debate and voted in favor of the 1978 Act. Tanner served 22 years as a United States Congressman from Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District after 12 years in the state House of Representatives.

“They tried every rule, everything in the book to stop it,” DeBerry said of Naifeh and Tanner.

Tanner didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

In audio recordings of House floor debate over the 1978 Act, Naifeh can be heard attempting to add amendments to the bill that were derided by supporters of collective bargaining as delaying tactics or attempts to kill the union-friendly legislation.

Naifeh in 1978 was a supporter of local control, and he argued that the state was imposing its will on the districts by forcing them to recognize and exclusively negotiate with a teachers union.

“All I’m asking is that you give the people of your district the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to have professional negotiations,” Naifeh at one point pleaded with his House colleagues.

But between the fiery debates then and now, Naifeh has done a 180-degree change of course.

“I made a mistake, and I have admitted that many times,” Naifeh told TNReport earlier this legislative session. “At the time, it just didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t think it was the way to go.”

However, he added, “Once it got in place and all, I realized that we needed collective bargaining.”

And if anything, the former House speaker is even more adamant today in supporting collective bargaining for teachers than he was against the idea in 1978. He’s often among the most incensed Democratic voices as GOP-driven developments unfold seemingly beyond his or his party’s influence.

“I’ve never seen anything more political in my years in this Legislature than what has gone on in the first few months, and I am sick and tired of it,” Naifeh thundered during one House subcommittee debate earlier this year.

Naifeh said he changed his mind on public-sector organizing after talking to school board members and his local director of schools, who told him “it gives them an opportunity to be able to sit down with the teachers and discuss these things in a very civil manner.”

“It may not have been a mistake then,” Naifeh said of his 1978 vote, “but today and even a few years after that, I can see where it was playing a role.”

Former Tennessee Education Association President George Kersey Jr. told the Tennessean in 1978 that the legislation was not “specifically designed for the TEA or its affiliates,” but would instead give teachers a choice about which organization could represent them.

Nevertheless, TEA has come to dominate teacher unionization in Tennessee, representing two-thirds of the 64,229 public and secondary school teachers. The other association that represents school employees in the state, the Professional Educators of Tennessee, has only about 5,000 teachers.

Jack Johnson, the Senate sponsor of the proposal to repeal collective bargaining and replace the system with a more open and less regulated system of communication between teachers and school boards, said he believes there’s little objective evidence to warrant continued support of mandatory collective bargaining in 2011.

“I think that it is clear if you look over the history of collective bargaining that it hasn’t worked,” said Johnson, a Franklin Republican who ushered his bill to passage in the Senate on an 18-14 vote earlier this month. “So, why he could be against it then and for it now, I do not understand.”

Johnson added that there’s “plenty of evidence where (collective bargaining) has created an adversarial and hostile relationship between teachers’ unions and the school boards.”

In fact, injecting a dose of political strife into how locally elected school boards conduct their affairs may have been partly by design. Responding to the suggestions that mandating collective bargaining would be a recipe for pitting teachers and school boards against one another, one lawmaker who supported collective bargaining commented during the 1978 House floor debate that “in some rural areas, tranquility and mediocrity have gone hand in hand.”

House records from that year reveal concerns about teacher input, and whether the bill would add to education problems or solve them — issues echoed in the current debate over tenure and teachers’ unions.

Then like now, teachers turned out in force at the Capitol to rally in support of state-mandated collective bargaining. They were “packing the galleries” during the House debate, according to the Tennessean.

Reid Akins, Andrea Zelinski and Mark Engler contributed to this story.