Lawmakers Vote to Repeal 1970s-Era Collective Bargaining Law

After another exacting run of debate over the merits and drawbacks of mandatory collective bargaining in local school districts, the House and Senate opponents of Tennessee’s 33-year-old system have agreed on a way to end it.

In the end, the Educational Professional Negotiations Act went out in similar fashion as it was ushered in back in 1978, with two sides disagreeing philosophically, ideologically and politically over how local school districts should negotiate contract issues with teachers. Unlike in 1978, however, the side advocating individualized approaches to employee negotiations triumphed over proponents of collective uniformity.

The bill approved Friday in both GOP-dominated chambers of the Legislature is the result of a “conference committee” compromise between Republicans in the two chambers. The six-member committee — three members from both chambers, four Republicans and two Democrats —  met twice briefly before voting on a pre-drafted new version of SB113/HB130. Democrats on the conference committee — Andy Berke from the Senate and Lois DeBerry from the House — opposed the Republican-endorsed plan.

In the House, where the outcome of the measure was much more in doubt than in the upper chamber, five lawmakers switched sides from a vote on the issue only a day before. Three Republicans, Reps. Jim Coley of Bartlett, David Hawk of Greeneville and Curry Todd of Collierville voted with the Democratic minority and five other Republicans who’ve consistently supported existing collective bargaining laws.

Two lawmakers who originally voted against the House bill flopped, including Memphis Democratic Rep. G.A. Hardaway and Rep. Dale Ford, a Republican from Jonesborough.

Like the old collective bargaining law, the new provisions now on the way to Gov. Bill Haslam’s desk outline guidelines of engagement for negotiations between elected school boards and professional teachers’ associations.

But there are key differences. Namely, that no single employee organization can become the “exclusive” negotiator to the exclusion of all others and that, at the end of the day, school boards can make decisions affecting education policy, school personnel and teacher evaluations without needing to win approval first from local teachers’ unions.

The bill passed Friday leans heavily on the concept of “collaborative conferencing,” a term introduced this session as an alternative to “collective bargaining.”

The bill’s sponsor, Debra Maggart, says the new collaborative conferencing schemes will be less combative than collective bargaining processes have been in the past.

According to the legislation, “collaborative conferencing” refers to:

“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 to confer, consult and discuss and to exchange information, opinions and proposals on matters relating to the terms and conditions of professional employee service, using the principles and techniques of interest-based collaborative problem-solving.”

Under the bill, panels of teachers and their representative associations would hammer out labor issues important to educators, instead of relying on a single union.

Representatives would be chosen through an in-district election where teachers would vote on two issues: Whether to use “collaborative bargaining,” and which teacher association, union or group they want representing them.

If a majority of teachers eligible to vote indicate they do want “collaborative bargaining,” here’s how the members of the newly anointed panel would be chosen, according to the legislation passed Friday:

The professional employee representatives shall be selected according to each organization’s proportional share of the responses to the second question; provided, however, that only those professional employees’ organizations receiving fifteen percent (15%) or more of the responses to the second question shall be entitled to representation. The category of “unaffiliated” as a response to the second question, but not the category of “none of the above”, shall be considered a professional employees’ organization for the purposes of this subdivision.

That panel could stay intact for three years to weigh in on labor issues like salaries and wages, workplace conditions, grievance procedures, insurance, leave, fringe benefits — but not including pensions to retirement programs under the Tennessee consolidated retirement system or local retirement incentives.

The list of non-negotiable issues includes merit-pay, teacher evaluations, personnel and staffing decisions and how grant-funding is used. The legislation bans all “payroll deductions for political activities,” a change that enraged opponents of the measure, particularly Democrats, who see it as an assault on a key source of their campaign funding.

Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis argued that doing away with payroll-deductions for political purposes would hamstring whatever newly empowered teacher associations arise, and limit their ability to influence debate in the primary arena of education agenda-setting.

“Every decision that affects education is a political decision,” said Kyle.

The Memphis Democrat said he’s in fact told the Tennessee Education Association “that the greatest argument against them is the monopoly — that we have granted (local teacher unions) monopoly, and we are not allowing competition.”

However, said Kyle, in a bill that purports to expand the number of groups that can represent teachers in formal talks with local school boards, it seems counter-intuitive to restrict them in their ability to participate in the political process through payroll deduction.

“We all know what that means,” said Kyle. “It means that there will not be political contributions. We all know how that works.”

Franklin Republican Jack Johnson, the primary sponsor of the Senate’s anti-collective bargaining legislation, countered that under the 1978 law only one group was permitted to access teacher payroll deductions in a district. And unless Democrats support offering that opportunity for highly efficient fund-raising to any and all groups pushing political agendas, it should be done away with, he said.

“Are we going to let Tennessee Right to Life come in and sign folks up for payroll deduction, and have money taken out of their check,” asked Johnson. “How about the Tennessee Republican Party? How about the Chamber of Commerce or National Federation of Independent Business? No, you see, in the state of Tennessee we have one group that teachers can make political contributions to through payroll deduction.”

Rather than opening that issue up to everyone, Johnson said it makes more sense to shut it down. “If you want to make a political contribution, get your checkbook out and send it in,” he said.

The Senate OK’d the measure with relative ease Friday with a 19-12 vote along partisan lines but members of the House — which debated for about four hours the day before on an earlier version of the bill — spent another three hours letting their opinions be known about the latest incarnation of the plan. The House then voted 55-40.

“Shame on you” members of the Tennessee Education Association shouted from the packed gallery after the legislature was dismissed, with hundreds later chanting “2012, 2012, 2012…” as Republicans left the chamber, foreshadowing a possible electoral showdown over the issue.

“I have to say that it’s not easy to give the benefit of the doubt any more. In fact, this process seems more and more to be a political vendetta,” said Sen. Andy Berke, a high-ranking Democrat from Chattanooga.

Democrats and the TEA have contended from the beginning of the session that this and other education bills were an attempt to attack the TEA for not donating more to the Republican Party during election cycles.

Former GOP Caucus Leader Glen Casada tried to pass a bill this year that would have banned teacher’s payroll deductions for union dues, but he dropped it early on in the legislative session saying he didn’t have time to push it through this year.

“This is just an attempt to weaken our political action committee, and to weaken our political involvement and to weaken our political influence,” said Jerry Winters, the TEA lobbyist. “We’re going to be involved in politics whether we have (payroll deductions) or not.”

But just because the bill went through doesn’t mean the association will back down, he said. He managed to draw at least 300 members and supporters of the TEA to the Capitol Building in time for the House debate. Because they were asked not to jeer or cheer from the gallery, most would wave their hands when they agreed with a point made on the floor, or give a thumbs down when someone made a comment they were at odds with.

“There’s no way this is going to break the back of the TEA,” Winters told reporters.

The governor has shied away from taking too forceful a position about collective bargaining, but indicated earlier this month that he’s likely go along with what the Legislature decides.