Children hate when their parents fight like children, unable to control their emotions. Teachers can tell when students are upset and bring their home life into the classroom. It is a sad and often unspoken truth that educators confront on a daily basis: nobody wins when parents fight. The same is true about organizations, political parties, or news organizations. While there are conflicts between all organizations, political parties, and news organizations, when they allow their emotions to get the best of them we all lose.
Recently, our organization was attacked in a distorted and malicious manner by a union. The subject was collaborative conferencing. They took a page right out of the Saul Alinsky playbook in their strategy. Alinsky said to accuse your opponent of what you are doing, to create confusion surrounding evidence of your own responsibility for causing the problem in the first place. John Loeffler points out that those who employ Alinsky tactics “oppose independent, morally strong, educated people because those individuals, especially in groups, can’t be manipulated easily.”
Loffler then adds, “Once they’ve created a problem they propose themselves, or at least those in power with the same ideology, as the answer.” The truth was that the problem they self-identified was of their own creation; the real solution would have been to have simply followed the law initially. We merely pointed out that the process and timeline for Collaborative Conferencing as prescribed by state law was not being followed correctly, and this organization did not like being reminded of the existing law and their responsibility to follow that law. Instead, they converted this opportunity to learn into a circuitous and defensive deflection of responsibility. It is unfortunate that school systems and our organization have to respond to the darker aspects of misleading communications that often come from unions rather than working collaboratively to highlight all the positive qualities in public education in which we can all agree.
It is worth noting we always support the right of employees to discuss their working conditions, and always have; however, a failed Industrial era model that was previously utilized has been discredited by numerous researchers like Michael Lovenheim, Alexander Willen, Andrew Coulson, Caroline Hoxby, Agustina Paglayan, and Terry Moe. A more modern approach to addressing issues and removing barriers to cooperation, while including more people should always be supported.
The term “collective bargaining” was coined in 1891 by British socialist reformer Beatrice Webb. Recognizing that this contentious 18th Century industrial model did not serve teachers and students in the 21st century, the Tennessee General Assembly made changes to the law in 2011. The intent was positive, although we disagree with some of the items like differentiated pay plans and other incentive compensation programs, including stipends, and associated benefits being excluded. In addition, they established a timeline for how this process must be completed. Any time the specifics of a law that are clearly included in the legislation are being ignored it creates a risk for the entire results to be invalidated outright, and all parties involved should want to ensure that the process is followed lawfully so that a Collaborative Conferencing agreement is successful.
Keep in mind the timeline written into the collaborative conferencing law was established to interact with school district budgeting processes, which align with City and County government budget processes and the state budgeting processes. Items that require funding are not effective until the local funding body has approved such funding in the budget. If the amount of funds appropriated is less than the amount required, the parties may continue to confer to reach agreement within the amount of funds appropriated. It is a cycle.
Deviation from that cycle in the bureaucratic processes make alignment with local, state, and federal budgets difficult. Whether or not we agree with the timeline established in the law is moot. It is the law. Perhaps we should change the law; as we have told our union counterparts, we were and are willing to work with them to do just that. However, until the law is changed we have no other option but to follow the law. The union apparently disagrees that the timeline identified in the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act is applicable.
Thinking ahead, if a school district was to arbitrarily decide to not follow the law, and policy was enacted based upon failure to follow the law some astute educator, somewhere would ultimately challenge the policy and point out that the district did not follow the law. And a judge would ultimately agree that the district failed to follow the law. Nobody would win, if that were to happen. Again, we professionally just pointed out the obvious, of which the union should have been aware, while telling them that they should meet and discuss the issues and move forward. We merely wanted the district to be aware they had not followed the law, and understood the risk.
The goal of collaborative conferencing has always been to include more, not fewer, teacher voices in the debate for teacher working conditions. It is a means to express an opinion and work toward solving disagreements on those issues such as salaries or wages, grievance procedures, insurance, fringe benefits, working conditions, leave and payroll deductions. Payroll deductions for political activities are expressively forbidden. It is also important to be reminded that state organizations do not initiate collaborative conferencing; rather it is done by local educators, who may be members of any organization.
Fortunately, collaborative conferencing is not the only manner to address these critical issues. Working outside of the conferencing process with superintendents and other elected leaders may actually be much more beneficial, especially since the conferring process has not been enacted widely across the state. In addition, rather than an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding), many of these items should be placed within board policies to be more effective for educators, thus making it more difficult to take away from educators. Public education in Tennessee wins when we all work together through civil discourse to address our considerable issues.
JC Bowman is the Executive Director and Audrey Shores is the Chief Operations Officer of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.