Friday, December 17, 2010

House considers limits on teacher strikes

By Jamey Dunn

Some education reformers want to make it more difficult for Illinois public school teachers to go on strike.

A House Education Reform Committee took testimony in Aurora today on a proposed new process for teacher contract negotiations.

According to Jessica Handy, policy director for Stand for Children Illinois — a national organization that is spearheading the current reform push in Illinois — if unions and administration could not reach an agreement through mediation, a fact finding panel would be chosen. Labor and management would each appoint one member and then would have to agree on a third person, who must have arbitration experience. Both sides would present their cases at hearings, and the panel would make recommendations for contract terms.

If either side did not agree to the terms, the panel's’proposal would be released to the public. Unions and management would then have 10 days to make final offers on disputed issues. If an agreement could not be reached, the local school board could adopt the final offers or the panel’s proposals on disputed issues with a two-thirds majority. Only if the board did not choose a solution to each disputed issue would teachers then have the option to strike.

Union officials said the system would in essence ban the right for their members to strike. They added that school systems would have no incentive to bargain with teachers because school boards would like sign off on management proposals at the end of the process. “Collective bargaining under the proposal would effectively be eliminated,” said Dan Montgomery president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

He said teachers have no desire to strike without first exhausting all other possible avenues for compromise, and typically, districts and unions negotiate for months before ultimately agreeing on a contract. “This is not a willy-nilly thing. A strike doesn’t happen overnight.”

Montgomery said reforms put in place in the 1980s have worked to reduce strikes.
He said that last year, there were two strikes in Illinois, which lasted a combined total of five days. That compares with an average of about 24 strikes a year in the nine years before reforms were passed.

However, the issue is not just the number of strikes but the power of a strike as a bargaining chip. “We’re not just talking about the number of strikes, we are talking about the potential of a strike and the power of that potential,” said Rep. Roger Eddy, a Republican who also is a school superintendent in Hutsonville .

Those in favor of changing the process say unions’ use of the threat of strikes has stood in the way of education reforms that would benefit students. They claim the number of strikes has gone down more in part to districts caving to unions’ demands after facing the threat of a strike. “[A strike] becomes an ultimate trump card [in negotiations] and stifles efforts to implement reforms,” Handy said.

Eden Martin, president of the Commercial Club of Chicago said the proposed changes would give teachers “less muscle in collective bargaining.” But he said unions currently hold the upper hand. “There is a balance in the process today … the balance is shifted way against management because of this threat to strike and the consequences of it. … What we’re suggesting is, you shift the balance in the other direction.”

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