Collective Bargaining Bill Clears Senate

Democrats on Monday accused Republicans of “muzzling teachers” and creating a new “unfunded mandate,” but that didn’t stop the GOP-led Senate from voting to repeal an existing state mandate that school boards collectively bargain with local teachers’ unions.

Sen. Jack Johnson, who has spearheaded a Republican-led push to roll back the 197os-era requirement that local districts obtain approval for their workplace policies and contract offers from teachers’ unions, said he is happy with the latest version of a bill to eliminate collective bargaining.

His plan, Senate Bill 113, would require that school boards consult a policy manual and solicit input and “collaboration” from individual teachers and their associations. Locally elected school boards would no longer be bound by law to formally hash out binding labor contracts with a single union representing all the district’s teachers.

“I think where we are now codifying that school boards be statutorily required to accept teacher input, I think that’s a good thing. It’s arguable whether that’s necessary. In my view, if the school board is not listening to teachers, they’re either going to be beaten in their next election or they’re not going to be able to hire very many good teachers,” he told reporters after the hour-long debate in the Senate.

Whether to eliminate collective bargaining, and thus weaken the power of the Tennessee Education Association to negotiate teachers’ labor contracts, has dominated this legislative session and sparked rallies attracting thousands to rally on Capitol Hill.

Indeed, Democrats argued that Republicans have become obsessed with the collective bargaining issue, to the detriment and neglect of other pressing education issues.

“Senate Bill 113 represents the U-turn that we have done on education policy in this state,” said Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga. “Last year we had Race to the Top, this year we have ‘Dive to the Bottom.'”

Berke said the bill “divides and polarizes our communities.”

“2011 will be known as the session about the collective bargaining ban — not jobs, not education reform, not infrastructure,” said Berke. “This bill unfortunately moves us backward, not forward.”

In its newest form, the bill would allow the local board of education to “collaborate” or debate with teachers or representatives from the teachers’ union on salaries and wages, grievance procedures, insurance, fringe benefits, working conditions, leave and payroll deductions — but all decisions would be entirely up to the school board.

“Collaboration” is a term added from the House version of the bill which was structured to allow collective bargaining but restrict the topics teachers unions could negotiate. Architects of that version, including House Speaker Beth Harwell and Rep. Debra Maggart have since embraced the Senate version of the bill and expect to add their language to their version of the plan this week.

According to the bill:

“Collaboration” means the process by which the chair of a board of education and the board’s professional employees or such representatives as either party or parties may designate, meet at reasonable times and in good faith confer, consult, discuss, exchange information, opinions, and proposals on matters within the scope of this part relating to the terms and conditions of professional employee service.

A bundle of topics are completely off the table for discussion, including merit and differentiated pay, how government grants and awards are spent, teacher evaluations, staffing decisions and personnel decisions on issues like filing vacancies, school assignments, positions, professional duties, transfers within the system, layoffs, reductions in force and recall.

The teacher’s union steadfastly opposes the bill, saying the state shouldn’t replace collective bargaining with a policy manual.

”That manual is your collective bargaining agreement,” said Sen. Jim Kyle, the top-ranking Democrat and a chief opponent to the bill. “The biggest difference between this amendment and the law today is… they have to meet but they don’t have to consider their opinion.”

House Republicans have yet to take the new version of the bill out for a spin but expect to put it before the Finance, Ways and Means committee Tuesday, which will likely be packed at the TEA has asked teachers to sit in on the hearing.