Teachers Aren't 'Interchangeable' in Tennessee

Intense and persistent lobbying by the National Right to Work Committee’s Tennessee members and supporters helped convince GOP legislators and Gov. Bill Haslam (R) to prohibit union monopoly bargaining in public schools. Credit: Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press

Volunteer State Teacher Union Bosses Losing Monopoly Privileges

This year, Right to Work proponents have scored a series of remarkable, though still mostly very tenuous, state victories over government union kingpins.

In March, Wisconsin and Ohio became the first states ever to revoke government union bosses’ privilege to get workers fired for refusal to pay dues or fees to an unwanted union after previously passing a law authorizing compulsory unionism.

The following month, Right to Work Oklahoma passed legislation denying government union bosses the legal power to force municipal officials to recognize them as public employees’ “exclusive” bargaining agents.

And now Right to Work Tennessee has achieved another milestone by effectively repealing the mislabeled “Education Professional Negotiations” Act, which authorized and promoted union monopoly-bargaining control over teachers and other K-12 public school instructional employees.

Union lobbyists rammed public school monopoly bargaining through the Tennessee Legislature in 1978. Big Labor puppet Gov. Ray Blanton (D) then eagerly signed the measure.

As a consequence of the Blanton law, educators in 92 Tennessee school systems, roughly two-thirds of all the districts in the state, are currently forced to accept union monopoly bargaining in order to keep their jobs.

The monopoly-bargaining system, now statutorily imposed on some or all state and local government employees in 36 states, hands union officials “exclusive” power to bargain over wages, benefits, and working conditions.

‘We’re Putting the Entire Education System at Risk’

Even public employees who choose not to join a union must work under contract terms negotiated by union bosses, or quit their jobs. Independent-minded employees are stripped of any freedom to negotiate with employers on their own behalf.

Of course, in Tennessee and other Right to Work states with public-school monopoly bargaining, educators are at least protected from being forced to pay tribute for Big Labor “representation” they never asked for. But that only limits the damage somewhat.

Even more than other public institutions, K-12 schools are corrupted by union monopoly control over employees. Arne Duncan, secretary of education for pro-forced unionism President Barack Obama, admitted as much in a speech delivered, of all places, at the National Education Association (NEA) teacher union’s 2009 convention in San Diego, Calif.

While he carefully avoided condemning monopolistic teacher unionism per se, Mr. Duncan bemoaned the fact that contracts blessed by union officials wielding monopoly-bargaining privileges have “produced an industrial, factory model of education that treats all teachers like interchangeable widgets.”

Mr. Duncan cited, for example, contract rules that base teachers’ pay entirely on how many years they’ve been on the job and how many years of higher education they have under their belts, regardless of what subject they studied or how well they learned it.

“School systems pay teachers billions of dollars each year for earning credentials that do very little to improve the quality of teaching,” Mr. Duncan charged.

“At the same time, many schools give nothing at all to the teachers who go the extra mile and make all the difference in students’ lives.” At another point in the speech, he warned: “[W]e are not only putting kids at risk, we’re putting the entire education system at risk.”

Asking Teacher Union Bosses to Stop Abusing Their Government-Granted Privileges Won’t Work

In the private sector, math majors earn salaries twice as high, on average, as those of English or history majors. But teacher union monopolists stubbornly insist all teachers be kept under the same rigid pay schedule. Credit: L. Todd Spencer/The Virginian Pilot

“Two years ago, Arne Duncan did a pretty good job of showing how teacher union monopolists are killing hopes of reform in school districts around the country,” said National Right to Work Committee President Mark Mix.

“But merely identifying the symptom is no cure for the malady. And the Obama Administration’s education ‘reform’ program blithely assumes teacher union bosses will stop abusing their government-granted privileges if ‘friends’ like Arne Duncan ask them to enough times.

“The fact is, NEA and other teacher union bosses have a vested interest in teachers being treated as ‘interchangeable widgets.’ That forces educators to rely on the union elite, rather than their own efforts, to enhance their job security and improve their pay.

“Contrary to Mr. Duncan’s view, you can’t bring about genuine reform by ‘working with’ teacher union monopolists. Instead, your first step must be to take away their monopoly privileges. And Tennessee has just taken this step.”

Under the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act of 2011, approved by the Tennessee Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam (R) June 1, many school boards will meet regularly with designated teacher representatives and discuss working conditions.

For the First Time in Decades, Nonunion Teachers Will Have a Voice

But in stark contrast to the current practices in the vast majority of Volunteer State school districts, no Tennessee Education Association (TEA/NEA) or other teacher union boss will in the future have a legally protected monopoly over all “employee” input in those discussions.

Instead, any educator organization, including nonunion groups opposed in principle to monopoly bargaining and forced unionism of all kinds, that receives the support of at least 15% of a school district’s instructional employees will send representatives to the discussions.

The newly enacted law also prohibits teacher union bosses (or anyone else) from using schools’ taxpayer-funded payroll-deduction systems to fund electioneering activities.

Once the Collaborative Conferencing Act takes effect, teachers who choose not to join any union will, for the first time in decades, have a voice in discussions with school districts throughout Tennessee regarding salaries, benefits, working conditions and grievances.

Mr. Mix said a large share of the credit for this very positive development is due to the roughly 46,000 National Committee members and supporters in Tennessee.

National Committee Members and Allies in Tennessee Opposed Phony ‘Compromise’ Schemes

“While Tennessee’s Capitol in Nashville is now dominated by Republicans who owe little or nothing to Big Labor, many GOP legislators, especially in the House, prefer to appease rather than confront the teacher union hierarchy,” Mr. Mix explained.

“Consequently, after a Tennessee Senate panel approved legislation [S.B.113] repealing union monopoly bargaining in public education this year, House Republican leaders publicly complained this measure was too ‘radical.’

“Republican politicians in the state House wanted instead to pass legislation merely limiting, somewhat, the scope of teacher union officials’ monopoly-bargaining privileges.

“The fact is, this would have accomplished relatively little, but not lessened the furious reaction of the teacher union hierarchy by even one whit.

“Mobilized by the National Committee, pro-Right to Work Tennesseans deluged their legislators with postcards, e-mails, and phone calls every time they heard news of a possible GOP sellout on monopoly bargaining in public education.

“Thanks to the grass-roots activism, House Republicans and Gov. Haslam ultimately went along with Senate Republicans on the core issue of education reform.

“In the future, teacher union bosses will no longer be able to cajole Tennessee school systems into granting them legal monopoly privileges, or have the legal power to force school officials to recognize them as educators’ ‘exclusive’ bargaining agents.”

But Mr. Mix cautioned that Right to Work supporters will need to monitor closely implementation of the new law once current monopolistic school contracts expire.

‘Collaborative Conferencing’ May Not Be an Ideal Solution

“Instead of eliminating monopoly bargaining simply by empowering individual teachers to negotiate with school officials on their own behalf, ‘collaborative conferencing’ continues to favor groups over individuals,” he said.

“The new Tennessee system is far preferable to what it replaces, because teachers who dissent from Big Labor ideology and policies will have the legal prerogative to select their own representative for discussions over working conditions.

“However, there is a danger that teacher union chiefs will successfully wield their political clout to intimidate school boards into circumventing the law and effectively shutting out nonunion educator groups from the ‘collaborative conferences.’

“In the coming years, National Right to Work will take every appropriate step to ensure that, under the Collaborative Conferencing Act, nonunion Tennessee educator groups truly have equal access to air their concerns with school officials, as the language of the law promises.”