House Collective Bargaining Bill Clears Education Committee

The newest manifestation of a House Republican-led plan to limit collective bargaining for teachers cleared a significant legislative hurdle Tuesday.

The House Education Committee on a party-line vote approved an amended version of HB130, which now proposes restricting the terms unions could haggle over and lowering the bar for local teachers to call a formal union decertification vote.

The House plan is a scaled-back version of its Senate companion bill, SB113, which as now written simply eliminates altogether a union’s ability to force collective bargaining with a local school district.

“At least it does not do away with the entire program,” Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the House Democratic Caucus leader, said of the House measure. “I guess bad is better than terrible.”

Republican Sen. Jack Johnson is no fan of the House version either.

As sponsor of the Senate bill, Johnson said he is confident his more sweeping proposal will pass easily in the upper chamber when he brings it to the floor.

He acknowledges a dicier political climate in the House, though. Johnson calculates his bill in current form would attract only between 47 and 49 Republican “aye” votes, just shy of the 5o needed to pass the House. There are 64 Republicans, 34 Democrats and one Independent in the chamber.

Johnson, the secretary of the Senate Republican Caucus, said short of keeping existing collective bargaining mandates in place, he’s open to adding language necessary to comfort GOP fence-sitters in the House. He said he’s particularly interested in working out compromise language that stresses the importance of local school boards seeking teacher input on whatever matter they are considering.

“With that type of language, maybe we can pick up those additional three, four, five votes in the House to get where we need to be and again have a full repeal of union-negotiated contracts,” said Johnson.

Johnson said he plans to spend some time watching and waiting for the House version of the bill to move further along — its next stop is the chamber’s finance committee — before he calls his own bill’s number for a full Senate vote.

House Democrats and officials from the Tennessee Education Association say they prefer the House’s current offering — provided, of course, that “neither” isn’t a viable option, which isn’t an altogether an impossible final outcome should the competing versions end up in a conference committee.

Democrats and the TEA’s chief lobbyist rattled off a raft of problems they have with the new version of the House bill, chief among which is that they think it is “punitive,” “politically motivated” and wholly devoid of their input. They are particularly unhappy with the the bill’s removal of issues like class size and whether or not the school should provide automatic payroll deductions from the collective bargaining negotiation table along with restricting the number of labor officials who can negotiate a labor contract.

“This bill turns back the clock 35 years,” TEA Lobbyist Jerry Winters told the Education Committee.

Indeed, Johnson’s bill is a repeal of the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act, which legalized and established a regulatory framework for collective bargaining for Tennessee public school teachers. The Senate passed the Act 33 years ago on a 20-10 vote. The House passed it 60-38.

The Act 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 TEA convention in Nashville so that teachers could witness him sign the new law.  The newspaper reported that Blanton thanked the cheering TEA audience for “elevating government employees from being second-class citizens,” and for supporting a tax increase his administration backed two years prior.

The Act declares that once “a professional (public school) employees’ organization has met the requirements of recognition…as the exclusively recognized organization, the board of education and the organization shall, in good faith, enter into negotiations, and if agreement is reached, enter into a memorandum of agreement based upon the negotiations and comply with the agreement.”

In the current legislative debate over whether, when and for what purposes local school board officials should be required by law to enter collective bargaining negotiations with local union affiliates, Democrats haven’t yet proposed amendments or offered any compromises.

Now outnumbered by Republicans in both the House and Senate by margins reminiscent of the Tennessee General Assembly’s 1978 Professional Negotiations Act votes, they say such attempts would prove futile. But that doesn’t mean Democrats won’t take a stab at trying to tack on amendments as the bill continues through the legislative process, Fitzhugh said.

Nevertheless, the TEA plans to continue “to raise the questions and hope that reasonable people will listen to us and maybe take some of the things we’re saying into consideration,” said Winters.

“It’s not a slam dunk in the House,” he said. “There’s some people who don’t particularly want this bill to pass as it is, including a lot of Republicans and a lot of Democrats. I don’t think there’s much more that we can do.”

Added Fitzhugh, “We don’t have much of a dog in that hunt right now. We don’t have much ability to change that.”

“We certainly think if something has to pass, it should be the version that the House is talking about now,” said the House minority leader.

Reid Akins contributed to this article.