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GOP Moderates Mull Collective Bargaining Compromise, Tea Party Pressure

House and Senate versions of a bill to restrict collective bargaining for Tennessee teachers differ significantly. Conservatives support a ban of the union-driven system for negotiating pay, benefits and work-conditions.

About 20 “waffling” House Republicans are on a Tennessee Tea Party do-email list for refusing to take a strong public stand on one of this session’s dominating issues: teachers’ union collective bargaining.

The loose network of conservative activists sent out an “action alert” Monday morning encouraging Tennesseans sympathetic to their cause to pressure middle-of-the-road Republicans to get on board with conservative efforts to ban collective bargaining for public school teachers.

“We are instructed that we have 47 confirmed House members who want to see collective bargaining ended and will support the original version. We need 50 (+ 2-3) for a majority,” according to the Tennessee Tea Party email blast. “We also need to be aware that Senator Ron Ramsey will appoint the more conservative of the Senators to the conference and Representative Beth Harwell will likely appoint the weaker of their members. Rep Harwell is in lockstep with Governor Haslam, who has proved himself weak on a variety of issues confronting our state.”

The email encouraged recipients “to apply heavy pressure” to GOP lawmakers deemed soft on the collective bargaining ban, or who “have varying degrees of allegiance to the unions” and may be “tied to and closely related to the (Tennessee Education Association).”

Teacher collective bargaining has been a focal point of controversy this legislative session since Republicans introduced bills to revoke unions’ leverage to negotiate on behalf of their school district’s educators.

Despite the attention, several of the lawmakers on the Tea Party’s list say they’re still in no hurry to stake out a position. Another who spoke to TNReport Monday indicated that while he favors limiting the reach and scope of collective bargaining, he’s not supportive of prohibiting it.

“I generally don’t take a firm stand on a bill until it’s completed, especially if there’s a great chance it’s going to be amended,” said Rep. Vince Dean, an East Ridge Republican, who added that the legislation still has a long way to go before becoming law.

Mountain City Republican Rep. Scotty Campbell said he’s avoided taking a position on the issue up to now because that’s what Gov. Bill Haslam has done.

“I was trying to follow his lead, and I think that was the commendable thing to do on this issue in particular,” said Campbell. “I didn’t campaign on it, it wasn’t part of my agenda and I think there are bigger matters facing us, like the economy, jobs, and the need to pass a balanced budget, which we of course have to do.”

Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, said he’s in the process of informally polling teachers in his district to see whether or not they favor union collective bargaining. So far, Pody said he’s found that about about 60 percent of teachers in his district favor collective bargaining and 40 percent don’t care.

Asked whether he thinks unions are a positive influence in education, Pody said, “That’s exactly why I am going to the schools — to see what is best for the students.”

Currently, teachers in 91 of the state’s 136 school districts are unionized. Under the Education Professional Negotiations Act of 1978, local school boards are required to engage in collective bargaining with a teachers’ union if a simple majority of educators employed by the district demand it.

Senators are waiting to vote on a bill to eliminate mandatory collective bargaining, SB113, which would repeal the 1978 law that gave teachers the negotiation leverage.

Advocates of collective bargaining repeal, mostly Republicans, say the system has been used over time to block education reform and protect bad or mediocre teachers. Democrats and teachers’ union leaders say the GOP’s effort to do away with collective bargaining is “political payback” against unions refusing to financially support Republican candidates.

However, House Republican leaders last week introduced a modest “compromise” amendment that, instead of doing away entirely with collective bargaining, would block unions from negotiating a handful of issues — in particular, merit pay for teachers who teach in particularly challenging subjects or classroom environments. The House GOP plan would also make it easier for teachers to dissolve their local union.

The House GOP’s more modest proposal isn’t supported by TEA or the tea parties — or for that matter Senate Republicans.

Democrats and union lobbyists are complaining they they were closed out of the behind-the-scenes talks that produced the amended bill. Conservative activists “are popping vessels over the idea of a compromise amendment,” said Tami Kilmarx, president of the Tennessee Tea Party.

The new version could make it easier for lawmakers like Rep. Richard Floyd to vote for limiting union power without having to be seen voting against the ability of teachers to unionize.

“Do I support the right of union people to bargain? I certainly do, that is their right,” said the Chattanooga Republican. However, he added, taxpayers have rights, too — as do some teachers who don’t want to be involved in unions and “have been intimidated by the TEA.”

The House GOP’s amended bill addresses both the potential for union and collective bargaining abuses, but “is not anti-teacher legislation,” said Floyd.

“Do I support the bill that is out there now? I sure do,” he said.

A hearing is scheduled on the House’s new version in the education committee today. Here’s a rundown of the bill’s current elements:

  • Teachers unions can no longer negotiate on behalf of members on the district’s management team, which is defined as employees who devote a majority of their time to the system-wide management of personnel matters, fiscal affairs or general management. That group also includes principals, assistant principals, supervisors and others primarily charged with administrative duties.
  • The union could not negotiate merit pay and other incentive programs like stipends or extra benefits in exchange for employee performance or to attract teachers to hard to staff schools and subject areas.
  • Neither could they officially weigh in on how grants or awards from the state, local or federal government, foundations or private organizations be spent.
  • Educator evaluations would not be subject to negotiation.
  • Salaries, benefits, staffing and policies relating to virtual and innovative education programs such as partnerships with local colleges or technology centers allowed under state law would not be negotiable.
  • Also off the table are personnel decisions such as filling vacancies, assigning educators to specifics schools, positions, professional duties, transfers within the school system, layoffs and reductions in force and recalls.
  • The union would no longer be able to negotiate payroll deductions.
  • Personnel decisions could no longer be based on seniority.
  • Agreements between the school district’s board of education would have to be given to all educators — regardless of their membership with the union — and require a ratification or rejection to be agreed to.
  • A majority vote of eligible teachers would be needed to install a union in a school district. Previously, only a majority of voting educators was required.
  • Thirty percent of educators instead of 50 percent are needed to call for a vote in order to dissolve the union. However, a majority vote of educators is still needed to actually remove the union.
  • New teachers unions must prove after about a year that a majority of educators are full dues-paying members.
  • Makes it illegal for the union to coerce or try to intimidate educators who do not join the union.

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