Teachers and school boards disagree on labor proposal

Organizations that represent teachers and school boards disagree on a proposal that would force them to negotiate.

During his budget address last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin called on lawmakers to pass legislation that would prohibit teachers from going on strike and school boards from imposing working conditions, and instead require both sides to enter into binding arbitration.

“We should pass legislation prohibiting both teacher strikes and board-imposed contracts, while requiring both sides to resolve differences through third-party decision-making when negotiation fails,” Shumlin said at the time.

For the Vermont-NEA and the Vermont School Boards Association, which represent teachers and school board members in the State House, the proposal, for the most part, is palatable.

“We understand that strikes are very disruptive to the communities where they occur. The vast majority of contracts are settled without strikes and imposition,” said Nicole Mace, general counsel for the Vermont School Boards Association, which supports the idea of prohibiting teacher strikes and contract imposition.

Teacher strikes in Vermont are few and far between, according to statistics from the Vermont-NEA, which cites 26 strikes in the more than 40 years that teachers have been permitted to collectively bargain, including seven in the past 10 years.

During the past 10 years, school boards have imposed contracts on their teachers 10 times, most recently in the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union in 2012.

“Since the late ‘90s, the Vermont-NEA has been willing to forgo the right to strike if, and only if, school boards forgo the right to impose working conditions and both parties enter into binding arbitration,” said Darren Allen, communications director for the Vermont-NEA.

That last bit about binding arbitration is what’s standing in the way of total agreement on both sides. While it supports the proposition of prohibiting strikes and contract imposition, the Vermont School Boards Association has adopted a resolution opposing the requirement that both sides enter into binding arbitration.

“Binding-interest arbitration tends to maintain the status quo,” Mace said. “It will perpetuate current contracts, many of which were negotiated 30 years ago, and in many cases those contract frameworks continue to exist.”

Allen asserts that it is the school boards, not the teachers, that are standing in the way of changing the way both sides negotiate.

“The biggest concession here is that a labor group is willing to forgo their most powerful tool. It is school boards that are standing in the way and preserving the status quo,” Allen said.

Currently, Vermont is one of 12 states that allow teachers to strike. If lawmakers were to adopt Shumlin’s proposal, Vermont would join five other states — Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maryland and Nevada — that prohibit strikes and require binding arbitration.

Agency of Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe said she is in favor of legislation that would prohibit teacher strikes.

“Ultimately, I think schools are essential services. It’s not only the way we educate our students, but parents rely on them to keep to keep their children safe, and for the neediest of our children, it’s the place where they get most of their nutritious meals,” Holcombe said. “Just like we expect our road crews to show up when it’s snowing, we need our teachers to show up in the classroom.”

josh.ogorman@rutlandherald.com

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