Collective Bargaining & Teachers' Unions Research Paper Starter

Collective Bargaining & Teachers' Unions

The process of collective bargaining is fundamental to the union movement. Teachers' unions in all but five states may use collective bargaining to negotiate for higher wages, improved work conditions and other terms of employment that are determined by state statutes. Negotiations are by their nature adversarial, but bargaining teams can use proven strategies to achieve mutual gains. There has been call for reform of the collective bargaining process, and the Bush administration, backed by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), has asserted pressure to include achievement goals in bargaining agreements, merit pay and more flexibility to transfer teachers. Unions have resisted and so far NCLB has had little impact at the negotiating table, but there have been other indirect changes outside of it. Union leaders contend that collective bargaining has in the long run improved student achievement.

Politics, Government & Education


Although each has roots going back as far as the mid-nineteenth century, the two largest unions in the United States, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), did not flourish until the early 1960s. Until that time, public employee unions were restricted and did not have the right to bargain collectively. After President Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988 in 1962 that granted federal employees the right, many states followed suit and enacted legislation that allowed their public employees, including teachers, to organize.

The teachers' unions were modeled on the industrial labor unions that won their rights to organize in the 1930s. The early days of the labor movement were contentious and even violent, and industrial employers had the upper hand. Passage of the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932 and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 ensured that labor unions and their members were protected and their First Amendment constitutional right to peaceable assembly was assured.

By the early twenty-first century, the power of industrial unions had waned and employees in public sector unions outnumbered those in the private; 35.9 percent of public employees belonged to unions in 2012 while only 6.6 percent of private employees did (U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013). In 2010-11, the nation's two largest teachers' unions boasted a combined membership of 4.6 million (Winkler, Scull & Zeehandelaar, 2012).

The desire for a fair wage and improved working conditions are two issues that spawned the labor unions for both industrial workers and public sector employees including teachers and government workers. Consequently, in the 1960s, state laws were written that defined negotiable topics for public employees and laid out the often complex processes for forming, joining, and operating a union.

Negotiable issues vary from state to state but almost always include salaries and benefits, but other items such as evaluation and grievance procedures, job assignments, and education-related issues such as academic freedom and student discipline. Local units of the larger national and state union organizations are responsible for bargaining with local school districts, although some states, such as Oregon and Rhode Island (McComb, 2000; "Report Submitted," 2004), have explored state-wide negotiations.

Although membership in the large unions is not growing so rapidly and they have been challenged by non-union organizations, they are still a force. In June of 2007, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that public employees in that state had the right to engage in collective bargaining, which overturned 60 years of legal precedent (Honawar, 2007a). On the other hand, as of 2009, twenty-three states had right-to-work statutes to counteract what is known as union security (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). Teachers in those states are not compelled to join a union.

How Collective Bargaining Works

Collective bargaining is practiced when a group of employees with like interests join together and elect a single organization to represent them in contract negotiations with their employer. Negotiators work toward completing collective bargaining agreements, which are "… complex and often lengthy written contracts that are legally binding on both management and the union(s) representing its employees" (Lunenberg, 2000, p. 4).

Teachers may not be the only employees in a school district who are organized. Support staff, maintenance, and even administrators may belong. However, depending on state laws and local history, they may be members of the same or separate units. It is usually in the best interests of both unions and school districts to have a minimal number of bargaining units, but only those who share a "community of interests" as defined by state statutes may come together in a specific unit. Many states have a public employee relations board (PERB) that oversees the regulations (Imber, 2004, p. 233).

When it is time to negotiate a contract, each side selects its representatives to serve on a negotiating team. Negotiating parties are required to negotiate in good faith. An unwillingness of either party to bargain over an item that is mandatory by state law is considered negotiating in bad faith and a violation or "unfair labor practice." Teachers' union and school district representatives meet until a contract is negotiated for whatever period of time they determine. Negotiations take place in face-to-face meetings, and the parties exchange proposals and counterproposals. If an agreement cannot be reached, the parties are at an impasse and further procedures are followed until there is resolution. The sequence of alternative methods to reach resolution is mediation, fact finding, and arbitration (Lunenberg, p. 9).

Circumstances for Strike

A strike may be called when an impasse cannot be resolved and union members refuse to report to work. A lockout is the opposite of a strike; the employer does not provide work and shuts down the schools. Only a dozen states allow strikes (National Council on Teacher Quality, 2013), and there are conditions before one may be called, such as giving prior notice. Major strikes such as the September 10-18, 2012, teacher strike in the Chicago Public Schools can include tens of thousands of teachers and may address wide-ranging issues from health benefits to hiring and firing of teachers to curriculum oversight (Ashack, 2013). Strikes are increasingly rare and are outlawed in most of the country's major cities; however, even though strikes are illegal, that does not mean that a union will not initiate one.

After decades of experience, most of the nation's teachers unions and school districts have developed techniques and processes to improve the collective bargaining process and to avoid impasse and strikes, which are costly to all parties, not least of all to students.

Collective bargaining originated as an adversarial process, but increasingly professional educators and administrators who must negotiate a contract have been trained to defuse it and turn it into a positive for both sides.

Collaborative Bargaining

Collaborative bargaining has been used for quite some time as a strategy to lessen the stress of collective bargaining (Liontos, 1987). Also known as "win-win" bargaining, collaborative bargaining encourages problem solving between the parties and frequently uses joint committees that meet during the contract period instead of waiting until a contract expires and they meet at the negotiating table. The term "professional unionism" describes the processes that unions and schools have used to move the adversarial negotiating processes into expectations by both sides for mutual gains. It is a system that "connects teacher participation in educational decisions to taking responsibility for outcomes" (Lunenberg, 1996).

Principal-Centered Negotiations

The school principal is regarded as having the pivotal role in promoting professional unionism and encourages a proactive approach to dealing with human resources and other negotiable issues. The negotiated contract has a day-to-day impact as well as long-term affect on the activities of a school, and as front-line administrator, the principal is there to respond to the issues as they arise (Lunenberg, 1996).

Bennett and Gray (2007) advocate principal-centered negotiations. Their experience in California suggests that principals should be on negotiating teams and charged as advocates for quality educational services, which are often lost when "fiscal considerations become the primary focus of negotiations" (Bennett & Gray, 2007, p. 22). They argue that school districts spend more time on financial preparation for negotiations than on academic concerns and recommend that the schools become more proactive by making a link between the union's salary demands to student achievement. "Collective bargaining contracts must support and encourage the delivery of high-quality educational services for students and not impede or harm the delivery of those services" (Bennett & Gray, 2007, p. 24).

Advocating that site administrators be at the center of collective bargaining is further justified by Hewitt's (2007) research. He used Myers and Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI) to understand teachers' personalities and the school environment that they inhabit. Based on his analysis, the teacher populations exceeded the general population as predominately Sensory Judging (SJ) individuals (49%), who are tagged as givers, have a strong sense of duty, and meet their obligations, and secondly as Intuitive Feeling (NF) individuals (26%), who are sensitive, care for other human beings, and allow emotions to rule their judgment. He then offered specific recommendations for district officials for communicating effectively with teachers of these types. These personality types respond to "ongoing communication, personal contact and recognition of the valuable … individuals making up our teaching staffs … [and] … are the most important factors in successful collective bargaining" (Hewitt, 2007, p. 30). Who better to understand this than the school principal?

Effects of Federal Legislation on Union Negotiations

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has been a factor in all major educational policy decisions and actions in the U.S. since President George W. Bush signed it into law in 2002. The act mandates that schools meet improvement standards and that all children must be taught by a highly qualified teacher. Schools have struggled to meet the mandates, and teachers' unions have fought them, even bringing suits against the Department of Education.

There were early concerns that the provisions of NCLB might override collective bargaining agreements. Unions were wary that school districts would use NCLB compliance to undercut bargaining (Keller, 2006). Among the most provocative provisions of NCLB to teachers and unions was that if a school were found "in need of improvement" for at least four years, it might trigger disbanding an entire school staff and...

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