Education Featured News

House Approves Collective Bargaining Limitations

The Tennessee House and Senate have approved competing plans overhauling the state’s collective bargaining laws.

But both chambers’ leaders believe they’ll ultimately end up banning unions from negotiating teachers’ labor contracts once everything is said and done.

“I think the vote today indicated that we can get it passed if it’s reasonably drawn and reasonably written. I think we have the opportunity to pass it here,” House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, told reporters after she presided over a grueling four-hour debate on her chamber’s floor.

On a 59-39 vote, majority Republicans moved to scale back teachers’ collective bargaining powers.

Opponents included all the House Democrats, one independent and five Republicans. They pitched more than two dozen alternatives to weaken or derail the bill, but only a few tinkering with technicalities passed — the rest were either tabled or later withdrawn.

One opponent to SB113/HB13o, Democratic Rep. Mike McDonald of Portland, wheeled out an easel and poster boards to help illustrate what he thinks collective bargaining has accomplished to aide teachers beyond helping them get better contracts. The system has allowed them to pressure school boards into purchasing additional “instructional supplies” and other educational materials for their classrooms, he said.

A band of Republicans railed against the bill, too. The GOP caucus members who voted against SB113/HB130 included Reps. Scotty Campbell of Mountain City, Mike Harrison of Rogersville, Dennis “Coach Roach of Rutledge, Dale Ford of Jonesborough and Bob Ramsey of Maryville.

Independent Kent Williams also voted against the anti-collective bargaining legislation. The former state House speaker from Elizabethton hinted during the floor debate that the bill was no more than “political payback” because the Tennessee Education Association gives dramatically more money in campaign contributions to the Democratic Party than they do the GOP.

Republicans maintained that their efforts were solely about improving education in Tennessee, and that ultimately everyone — teachers, students and taxpayers — would benefit from loosening the union’s grip on policy and personnel discussions.

GOP lawmakers said they believe the TEA has become a force of obstructionism in education reform discussions over the years, and that the process of collective bargaining between a school board and a single employee organization to the exclusion of all others thwarts input and exchange of new ideas.

“We have allowed a professional organization to hijack education in our state for their own agenda,” said Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican.

Far from being an “attack on teachers,” as opponents of the legislation have painted GOP efforts for months this session, SB113/HB130 represents “the most empowering legislation I’ve seen in a long time for teachers,”said Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol.

Eliminating collective bargaining and allowing school boards to consider other viewpoints and voices when drafting new contracts for education professionals “will help (teachers) succeed,” said Lundberg.

Under the House proposal, teachers unions would no longer be able to negotiate salaries, merit pay, use of grant funding, teacher evaluations, personnel decisions along with policies relating to special education programs like virtual school districts.

Unions would, however, still be able to hammer out issues like benefits and staffing decisions.

Powerful Senate Republicans though have said all along they will accept nothing less than a complete repeal of the 1978 Education Professionals Negotiations Act, which mandates that school districts negotiate with a recognized teachers union.

Not only would the Senate prefer no mandate to collective bargaining, but they’d rather teachers and unions “collaborate” with school districts on issues they want to debate on — but ultimately leave those policy decisions entirely up to the school board.

The rest, they say, they’re happy to compromise on.

So what happens now?

The two chambers will likely play a short game of legislative ping-pong where the Senate rejects the House version of the collective bargaining overhaul then the House turns down the Senate version.

Then speakers from both chambers will name three lawmakers to represent the chamber in a conference committee, essentially a compromise group meant to hash out the differences between the two bills.

Harwell said she’d consider naming Education Chairman Richard Montgomery of Sevierville, bill sponsor Debra Maggart of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville to the committee. Although she will make the committee assignments later in the week, it’s unclear whether she’ll swap any of those members for a Democrat as conference committees traditionally included a member of the minority party.

Education Featured News

Amid Political Uncertainty, Collective Bargaining Bill Headed to House Floor

For the second time this session, Tennessee Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell had to throw a lifeline to a proposal to curb the power of unionized teachers to exclusively negotiate labor contracts with local school boards.

The Nashville Republican offered the tie-breaking vote Wednesday, 13-12, to advance a proposal restricting collective bargaining through the committee system. A similar intervention by Harwell was necessary to save the same measure, HB13o, back in March.

“I made a commitment to the membership of Republican Caucus that they would have an opportunity to vote on this on the House floor and in order for them to do that, this bill had to come out of committee today,” Harwell told reporters after the hearing.

Three Republicans voted with Democrats against the bill, including Rep. Scotty Campbell of Mountain City, Rep. Mike Harrison of Rogersville, and Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach of Bartlett

Republican Rep. Jim Coley abstained, telling reporters later that he felt a conflict of interest because he belongs to the Tennessee Education Association. His urge, he said, was to vote against the bill, which likely would have killed it. Coley said he hasn’t decided if he would vote on the measure on the House floor.

There are two competing bills the General Assembly is considering. The House version would limit the issues teachers unions can bring to the collective bargaining negotiating table. A bill that has already passed the Senate would eliminate collective bargaining entirely by repealing the 1978 Professional Education Negotiations Act that currently requires school boards to negotiate labor contracts with one recognized teacher union in 92 Tennessee school districts.

GOP Caucus Chairwoman Debra Young Maggart, who is sponsoring the House legislation, was the only Republican during the committee hearing to spend any significant time defending the collective-bargaining rollback efforts, or attempting to argue they will benefit education in Tennessee.

“Saying over and over that this is an attack on teachers is a very nice talking point because I want you all to know that it’s not true,” said Maggart. “We are trying to make sure that we have every tool available to advance student achievement in our schools, that’s what this is about.”

But Democrats say they don’t buy that, and they also maintain there’s little public or local political support for the GOP-led effort to restrict union influence in Tennessee’s school systems.

“I think it’s the tail wagging the dog,” said Rep. Gary Odom, a Nashville Democrat who accused the original architect of the bill — the Tennessee School Boards Association — of driving the proposal without support from their local school boards. “I think this is an attack on teachers. I think it’s motivated politically. To me, until those in my community who work on education issues every day in their position, tell me this is good, how can I vote for it? How can you vote for it?”

Republicans on the committee offered little in the way of rhetorical defense of their caucus chairwoman, save the GOP majority leader, Gerald McCormick, who did so while admitting the collective bargaining bill is treading on thin ice.

“I don’t know that there’s the votes to pass the Senate bill. I honestly don’t,” McCormick told the committee, adding he prefers the House version himself.

Democrats on the other hand spent significant time arguing that passage of the Senate bill is a foregone conclusion — meanwhile admitting they fully understand the strategies being employed by Republicans, having been in the majority themselves only a short time ago.

“This is inside politics,” House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh told the committee after predicting the House will end up adopting the Senate version. “This is the way it’s done, and it’s a roughshod sometimes, and I’ve been on both sides of that.”

Speaker Emeritis Jimmy Naifeh outlined to the committee exactly what he thinks will happen to the bill, ultimately ending in the House adopting the Senate version although it never made it out of any House committees.

But Fitzhugh said he understands the reality of being in the minority.

“We know the votes. We know what the votes are. So something’s going to pass and I guess the lesser of two evils is the House version,” Fitzhugh told TNReport after the vote. “Like I said, I didn’t fall off a turnip truck. I can see what’s coming down the road.”

Education Featured News

One Step Forward, Two Back

Rep. Jimmy Eldridge said he didn’t know prior to Tuesday’s House Finance, Ways and Means Committee meeting that he’d want to put off discussing anti-collective bargaining legislation.

But once the Jackson Republican saw that yet another lengthy amendment was being added to an already much-amended bill, it became clear to him that the House Education Committee was better suited to examine the rewrite than the finance committee. So he made a motion to send the bill back from whence it came.

Four other Republicans and nine Democrats backed him and in the process overpowered remaining GOP members of the committee, including GOP House Leader Gerald McCormick, who personally tried, but failed, to kill Eldridge’s motion.

But Eldridge said later his intentions were not to “derail” the push by his fellow GOP lawmakers that’s become the focus of so much attention this session. “My heart led me that way, and I wasn’t trying to kill it, or persuade it or affect it any way,” he said.

Nevertheless, Eldridge’s move brought to the fore the question of whether the effort to repeal the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act has enough support to pass the House this year.

McCormick told reporters Tuesday night he suspects not.

Despite the caucus leader’s perceptions, though, the one higher-ranking Republican in the House, Speaker Beth Harwell, said Wednesday it’s still too early to start writing postmortems for the legislation this year.

Harwell said the bill, HB130, still has a “razor-fine margin” of support and barring any other big surprises on track to ultimately pass.

The House Education Committee is expected next week to consider the new amendment, which closely resembles language in the Senate version of the bill — SB113 which won approval Monday — requiring districts to develop policy manuals on how they decide labor issues. The move kicks the bill two steps backward as it had already passed that committee along with the finance subcommittee.

The legislation also mandates that school boards sit down with teachers and their respective unions to discuss labor contracts, although the school boards would have the final say on what does or does not get implemented. Unions, however, would no longer enjoy de facto veto authority over school policies they oppose.

House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery said he “has a feeling” the body will OK it despite its highly volatile nature.

“This isn’t about teachers,” Montgomery said. “This is about trying to free up the system so that it operates better and we can all work together better as a team.”

But Montgomery added that he considers it vital to ensure that input from teachers is sought and heard by locally elected school officials.

“At the end of the day we are going to come up with a piece of legislation that I hope will let the teachers feel comfortable that they have a voice,” he said.

The five Republicans who voted to send the bill two steps back in the legislative process all cite different reasons for their actions, ranging purely from not wanting to get their hands dirty navigating through education policies to disagreeing with the underlying motives of the bill, which is the perception among Republicans that the 1978 law mandating local districts negotiate solely with unionized teachers is unfair, unproductive and often unnecessarily antagonistic.

That’s not a view accepted by Rep. Dennis “Coach” Roach of Rutledge. Like Maryville Republican Douglas Overbey in the Senate, Roach is with the Democrats on this one, and there’s nothing his fellow Republicans can put in the bill to make him vote for it because he feels the proposal does nothing to improve education or help teachers.

“I can’t support it in any form right now. You add one bad amendment, take off a bad amendment add another bad amendment, it still does the same thing, and what they’re trying to do is the same thing no matter what amendments are on the bill,” said Roach.

Scotty Campbell, of Mountain City, said he’d rather be talking about the government solving persistent unemployment problems and securing disaster-relief funding for his constituents instead of getting sidetracked by thorny debates over the nature and merits of public sector employee unionization.

“We were in the finance committee. I’m not on the education committee. I’m not on the education subcommittee,” said Campbell. “I’m not an education expert, so I voted to refer the legislation back to its proper place.”

Rep. Jim Coley said he voted for the delay not because he’s a teacher and member of the Tennessee Education Association — which is directly affected by the bill — but because the finance committee isn’t equipped to be responsible for the new thrust of the collective bargaining ban.

But the Bartlett Republican said he’s not sure what side of the issue he’ll be on when it’s time for him to vote. And he’s not sure it’ll have enough votes to get to the floor.

“I think the committee is divided. I think you can tell by the vote to send it back to education that there’s some division among Republicans and more unanimity among Democrats,” said Coley. “I think it will be a close vote, either in the committee or on the House floor.”

Education Featured News

GOP Moderates Mull Collective Bargaining Compromise, Tea Party Pressure

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.