What I Saw At The Open Negotiations

Last night I attended the Douglas County teachers union contract negotiations conducted under the county’s new Open Negotiations policy.  This was the first meeting which teachers were able to attend, and the Douglas County Federation of Teachers – the local for the American Federation of Teachers – had called for teachers to show up in force.  There was the hope that a large, unruly audience might prove more entertaining than a philosophically incoherent negotiating team.

In the event, I had to settle for the incoherence, but it was illuminating enough.

The crowd itself was large – eventually reaching about 350 people – but well-fed, and thus, well-behaved.  Nobody tried to start a drum circle in the back of the room, for instance.  After some early applause, one of the union negotiators reminded the group that they were there are spectators, not participants, and more like spectators at the Masters or Wimbledon than the Super Bowl, at that.  The teachers resorted to mass waving a couple of times, but that’s the sort of thing that comes with hanging around grade-schoolers all day, I suppose, and the novelty quickly wore off.  No Pinkertons were needed.

Aside from the 1% – no, not that 1% – the 1% pay raise that the Board had proposed, the two most contentious issues were the district’s desire to stop collecting union dues, and the desire to stop paying the salaries of union heads who aren’t in the classroom.

The union tried to turn the first issue into a 1st Amendment fight, essentially arguing four things: 1) the union speaks for the teachers, so stopping the collections amounts to trying to squelch free speech, 2) the union is being singled out for this treatment because 3) it opposed the election of the current Board members, even though 4) it didn’t contribute dues money to their opponents’ political campaigns.

It should be fairly easy to ridicule these arguments and dispose of them.  A union, recognized by the district or not, is just an organization, and it should be responsible for contacting its own members and collecting its own dues.  There’s no good reason to spend taxpayer resources doing that, and the fact that the dues money goes right back into political campaigns to determine the unions’ negotiating partners and (evidently) collections agents, is just all the more reason to put that burden on the union itself.  It’s not a free speech issue, any more than Denver’s reluctance to come by and put a lein on my property against my shul dues is a free exercise issue.

Unfortunately, a federal judge in Wisconsin disagrees.  Thus the reason for Jed Palmer’s claim that this issue had been “extensively litigated in Wisconsin,” and the specific line of questioning trying to establish the same facts in Douglas County.  Unfortunately for the union, the Board showed that dues money had been used in campaigns, and also said that since each contract was negotiated separately, if they found evidence of similar activity on the part of, say, the bus drivers, they’d try to negotiate the same disengagement from them.  (You can see some of the raw video of this exchange.)

Since this is a negotiation, and not legislation, the union was basically arguing that they didn’t have the power to bargain away their members’ 1st Amendment rights, and claimed that this was an issue of working conditions.  There are, of course, all sorts of restrictions on teachers’ 1st Amendment rights when they’re working.  They get fired all the time for pushing their political views in the classroom, for instance.  They were trying to find legal backup for their position, claiming that not only was the district wrong, but that the negotiators couldn’t concede the point even if they wanted to.  Whether this is setting the stage for a strike or a lawsuit remains to be seen.

More interesting, although probably a slightly lower priority for the teachers, was to stop having the union heads be district employees, as they are no longer in the classroom, but have as their sole job representing the teachers.  The union has already offered to reimburse the district for all of the salary, and all of the PERA contribution costs, of those positions, which run to several hundred thousand dollars a year.

What’s the issue here, since the union has offered to reimburse all the expenses, and the salary will get paid whether or not the union leader is working for the union or for the district?  It seems as though either side could give way without any loss.

Not so fast.  The key here is the PERA benefits, which are calculated by a formula based on earnings, which are set by the union.  Making a union head leave PERA for the duration of his service would certainly make union leadership a less desirable task.  But it’s also unfair on the face of it to put taxpayers on the hook for benefits they can’t limit, for services not being rendered to them.  (Somehow, and I’m really not sure how, this issue got tied up with the national AFT’s Education Research & Dissemination program, sort of a classroom best-practices training that they run.  But it appears that that, too, is paid for by dues and not by the district.)

At one point, in the middle of the discussions, Jed Palmer decided to launch an all-out blitz on the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national organization of conservative state legislators, and its supposed marionette-like control over the board.  While hypocrisy is always one of the easiest political charges to level, it’s worth pointing out that teachers unions – including the AFT – have a long history of collaborating with outside groups, as well.

Van Jones and other assorted fellow-travelers have attempted to make ALEC toxic, with a little success, mostly because it’s a very successful way for conservatives to coordinate legislative policy nationally, as the left has done for decades.  I doubt that ALEC’s toxicity extends to the general public, though, and it seemed to be more of a way of both building on that campaign, and rallying the troops.

Therein lies one of the dangers of open negotiations, but also one of the opportunities.  The crowd Thursday night was well-behaved.  But it’s still early. If the union finds that it has over-stated its position on, say dues collection, it’s going to find it more difficult to walk back a public position than a private one.  Even when teachers were well-informed of what was going on behind closed doors, while the public wasn’t, they weren’t a physical presence in the negotiating room.  The presence of a large number of angry teachers – and if things drag out, they could get angry – could serve to intimidate their own negotiators as much as the school board.

On the other hand, assuming that the sessions don’t have to move behind shatter-proof glass, the open sessions will allow an interested public to see what positions are taken, what justifications are used, and may ultimately, over time, have the effect of forcing both parties to engage in more persuasion, less posturing.

UPDATE: I tweeted as much of the proceedings as I could stay for; once the negotiations moved into salaries and benefits, I just didn’t have the numbers or understanding of the issues to be able to comment intelligently.  You can see the thread, my tweets, and the very illuminating tweets from @parentLEDreform.

UPDATE II: From someone more familiar with the FTE issue than I:

Here is the ironic thing. Earlier this year, the administration realized that although we were paying half the union leadership’s salary (actual compensation for particular individuals varies), they were not doing anything that we could see for the District. Dr. Fagen asked them to be accountable for the half we were paying, i.e. spend time with an assigned administrator completing special projects. Initially, the president agreed, but then she backed off the statement. She said she was not interested in such an arrangement. Dr. Fagen sent her an email documenting their conversation, reiterating their understanding that the union would now be paying 100% instead of participating in a collaborative relationship for partial pay. The union agreed… then backtracked again, calling in attorneys. Eventually the Board thought we might be better off divesting ourselves of this torturous relationship. We would not be talking about union salary reimbursement, PERA, etc. right now if they had simply agreed to accountability for the 50% of pay.

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