Sen. Benning: A better way for union contract negotiation

Editor’s note: This commentary is by state Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia.

In the 1980s, then-state Sen. Jeb Spaulding introduced and pushed hard for an alternative contract resolution process to avoid the need for teacher strikes or school board contract imposition. Anyone who has personally witnessed what contract imposition and strikes do to communities, teachers and families knows they are not momentary inconveniences. They bring long-lasting scars and needless animosity as communities polarize into opposing camps. They teach bad lessons to children who are forced to watch as the adults in their lives draw battle lines. Although thankfully still fairly infrequent, these disputes are bound to increase as financial pressures on our educational system continue to rise. I’d submit it is time to start an unemotional civil discussion on whether there isn’t a better way.

Vermont state Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia

It is for that reason that Rep. Kurt Wright and I are introducing legislation to continue the discussion then-Sen. Spaulding was advancing three decades ago. Contrary to the opinion of some, this is not simply an attack on the right to strike. The bill actually does four things and they come as a package. First, it would require that initial and subsequent contract proposals are delivered in a public setting. This forces both sides to approach contract negotiations closer to each other’s positions, because an unreasonable first proposal will be held up to public scrutiny. Fear, suspicion and paranoia are eliminated in the light of public display. In this way months of secret but unsuccessful negotiations that result in contract impositions and strikes can be avoided.

Secondly, it would prohibit the imposition of a contract. It is this “nuclear option” that inevitably leads to teachers being left to feel they are unappreciated. I’ve been married for 34 years to a teacher who devotes herself to a job far too few understand or appreciate. I’m quite well aware of why we in the community need to support teachers and pay them appropriately. But this nuclear option commences the “our way or the highway” mentality that leads to the other side (our teachers) feeling unappreciated and reacting defensively. It’s time to eliminate it.

Third, the bill would prohibit strikes. It is this “nuclear option” that, as we all know too well, creates battle lines within our communities through the disruption of family life. Strikes also have a direct impact on educational continuity and leave lasting impressions upon our children as the adults posture in opposing camps. Some contend strikes lead to quick resolution, but this argument ignores the months of unsuccessful negotiations leading up to it. It also fails to recognize that strikes are resolved only because the two sides came back to the bargaining table, something that might have been avoided if they never left it to begin with. Strikes do not foster teacher respect, they do just the opposite. It’s time to recognize the cost is not worth the option.

Finally, the bill calls for examination on how to bring about finality in the event the two sides are unable to reach agreement. This is not uncharted territory. There are 37 other states that do not allow contract imposition/strikes. That includes every other state in New England. What they do and how it works is worth investigating.

As now Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding knows, his college professors cannot strike. Even Vermont’s State Employees Association isn’t allowed to strike. The same goes for the unions in those 37 other states that already prohibit strikes. I’d be hard-pressed to believe these unions are somehow rendered helpless in contract negotiations. It is my hope that Vermonters will join in a civil conversation to bring about change. Until then, secrecy will foster suspicion, contract imposition will create teacher alienation, strikes will generate disrespect and these 1930s era labor relations weapons will continue to leave permanent scars. It’s time to talk about change.

Image courtesy of Joe Benning

One thought on “Sen. Benning: A better way for union contract negotiation

  1. This is a serious and creative proposal, assuming the continuation of a centralized government monopoly public school system. As usual (!) I proposed an alternative (long ago): Let the union propose its part of the school budget (teacher salaries and benefits). Let the school board propose its part (administrative costs, physical plant, transportation etc.) Then let the voters vote on both. Both sides could publicly comment on the other side’s proposal. If either (but most likely, the union’s) is voted down, the proposing party can cut back and propose again; or, last year’s approved budget terms continue for the next contract period (maybe plus 2%).

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