Negotiations Misconceptions Quelled 101

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Homeslice, an education blog by a teacher who’s actively involved in his union

Having been involved in contract negotiations and the bargaining process now for a number of years with my local, I’d like to share my thoughts about negotiating a contract. We are going to be back at the bargaining table come this fall, so it’s been on my mind as of late.

Contracts are rarely imposed.
Despite the fact that the media and the public and some education “reformers” would have you believe that the teachers’ unions force contracts down the throats of the poor hapless school board administrators and elected representatives, that is just not the case.

In many cases (and at least in my state) both sides have to agree for something to go into the contract. If they don’t agree, it just doesn’t make the cut. Very rarely do the original negotiations demands (or ideas or whatever you call them) of either side make the contract in their original form. There’s give and take on both sides; there always will be if there is good faith bargaining on both sides.

Closed-door negotiations must be agreed to by both sides.
A recent post on Mike Antonucci’s EIA Intercepts blog got me thinking about this. The post, “Closed-door bargaining and the union padlock” struck me as a bit biased– go figure. The type of negotiations that you enter into must be agreed to by both parties; neither one can force it on the other side.

Union members can provide input prior to the beginning of negotiations.
On the union side, members of a local have the opportunity to provide input into what they’d like to see in the next contract. Some locals do surveys, or meetings, or face-to-face “town hall” type sessions. The bargaining committee ideally should carry those ideas/desires into the negotiations sessions. Does it always work? No, but that’s how it should work.

The taxpaying public can provide input prior to the beginning of negotiations.
On the board/administration side, the people finance the system with their taxes, and vote their board members in and out. They have the ability to contact their elected official (just like the union members within their organization) and express their concerns. The school board member may or may not be sitting at the table; perhaps they have hired an attorney to do that for them, but the option for public input is there prior to the “inking of the deal”.

The media ALWAYS provides input prior to, during and after negotiations.
Let us not forget that the local media always has the option of adding their two cents at any given time. How? Op-eds, editorials, articles, letters to the editor are all published at strategic times in negotiations that can sway public opinion one way or the other, to say nothing of blogs, TV, radio, Twitter and the like.

When you hear specifics about negotiations it’s generally because they’re going badly.
Closed-door negotiations benefit the process because each side can negotiate in good faith without having to worry about the other side trying to influence the process by their actions outside of the room. When one (or both sides) feel that the other is not negotiating in good faith, that is generally when the rumbles and the rhetoric begins.

Tentative agreements are that: tentative.
A TA is simply a pause in the process, a holding pattern, if you will. It is a formal acknowledgement by both sides in bargaining that they think they have reached a middle ground on the issues that are important to them, and would like to take it back to their constituents for approval or disapproval.

Traditionally, the unions go first with a ratification vote. Depending on the size of the local, it could be in the school cafeteria, or it could be a mail-in or phone-in vote: all locals are different. Ultimately, the members have the option to accept or reject what has been brought to them in a democratic fashion.

There is a bit of “strategery” involved in unions bringing a TA to members.
A complaint that has registered before with me on the Internet is that teachers’ unions “spring” the TA on their members with no notice and then expect them to vote on it. There’s no ifs ands or buts around it– that’s how it happens. The reason is simple. My dues dollars to my local and state affiliate pay for the negotiations activities that ultimately results in some kind of a TA. I should be able to see it first without anyone else (media, public) being to see or comment on it.

If the teachers’ union meetings are face-to-face and run correctly, there can be debate, and teachers can vote it down. They cannot, however, amend or modify a TA. If teachers vote it down, that sends the message to the bargaining committee that the membership isn’t satisfied with what is in the TA and they need to go back to the table. If the members are satisfied and the TA is ratified, then it will go to the school board for their vote.

The tax-paying public has time to register their opinions and sentiments with their duly elected officials before they commit public tax dollars towards ratifying a new contract.
At this point, there is usually a pause in the process– perhaps a week, two weeks or even as much as a month, depending on when the teachers vote on a contract and the next school board meeting happens. This is the built-in time where the media reports on the contents of the TA, and analyzes what’s in there, editorializing all the way home. Members of the public can comment and have time to contact their school board members to express their opinions.

If the school board members adopt the contract, then both parties have a mutual agreement and it becomes a binding legal document.

Get it? Mutual agreement.

Thank you, drive through.
Posted by Dr. Homeslice

Dr. Homeslice: I’m a teacher and I’m involved in my union. I highlight teacher union happenings all around the United States, including grievances, contract negotiations, elections and strikes. Contact me at drhomeslice@hotmail.com

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