Harwell: Union Bargaining Restrictions Likely to Pass

House Speaker Beth Harwell told a group of Tennessee business leaders Tuesday she thinks a bill limiting teachers’ union collective bargaining will pass this year, but probably not until after other education legislation favored by Gov. Bill Haslam.

“We are looking to allowing the governor’s package to move forward first, and then we’ll be looking at collective bargaining,” said Harwell, who addressed an audience of the National Federation of Independent Business and the Home Builders Association of Tennessee at a meeting in downtown Nashville.

The union negotiation bill will likely start picking up steam in the House this month, she said.

Sponsored by Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, and Rep. Debra Young Maggart, R-Hendersonville, SB 113 and HB 130 would abolish a union’s power to negotiate binding teacher contracts with local boards of education. The legislation has drawn considerable attention as the Republican-dominated Legislature looks to shrink the Tennessee Education Association‘s role and influence in state education policy discussions and local school employee contract negotiations.

Harwell said she believes there will be a few changes in the bill, although she did not elaborate on that point. “Ultimately, I think it will pass,” the Republican from Nashville said.

The collective bargaining legislation has been approved by the Senate Education Committee, 6-3. In the House it is awaiting a hearing in the general subcommittee for education.

“Anything that has an impact on how well a child learns in the classroom should be taken out of the negotiation process,” Harwell said, attempting to separate the educational experience from items like job benefits.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative proposal focuses on another education issue, lengthening the probationary period for teacher tenure from three years to five, and Haslam said Tuesday he may weigh in on the collective bargaining bill. Haslam’s package also carries a tort reform measure, which Haslam believes will make Tennessee a more attractive state to employers.

Harwell is marshalling legislation largely in support of Haslam’s agenda. For the first time since Reconstruction, the Republicans hold the upper hand in the Senate, House and governor’s office. Little GOP dissent has emerged over the Haslam package.

Harwell finds herself in an historic position, the first woman to be House speaker. But she told her audience Tuesday the job comes with mixed responsibilities.

“As many years as I’ve served in the General Assembly (since 1988), I never fully realized how much comes through the speaker’s office,” Harwell said.

“There is a lot that goes through that office, from mundane items like assigning parking spaces and assigning secretaries and office space, to all the contracts that come through the General Assembly. I’ve reviewed a lot of those already.”

She is also involved in appointments to various boards and commissions, she said.

“So it is, in itself, a very powerful position to be in in state government. It’s designed to be that. Not only is it an awesome opportunity but it is somewhat of a humbling experience for me,” she said.

Harwell said she sees the current makeup of state government to be a chance for Republicans to shine and show their ability to lead.

Knowing her audience, she made sure she let the business community know she understands their needs from government, which she said should be limited. Harwell used her husband, Sam, a businessman, as an example.

She told the story of how she was about to speak to a small-business group in her district and asked her husband if there were one thing she could do as a legislator for a business owner, what it would be.

“He very quickly looked back at me, held up his hand and said, ‘Leave me alone. Don’t do anything for me. Don’t do anything against me. Just leave me alone.'” she said.

“Those words have echoed in my mind many times as we’ve talked about business.”

But she also said her husband, who runs Nashville-based Big Time Toys, does not get up each morning pondering how to create a job.

“You know what he sits at the table and says?” she asked. “‘How can I make a profit this year? And if I make a profit, then the byproduct will be a couple of new jobs in Middle Tennessee.’

“That’s the byproduct, and I’m smart enough to realize that.”

She told her audience flat-out, “You’re in the business to make a profit, and there’s nothing wrong with that word. Profit. It’s a good thing.

“It’s what America is all about.”