And Now for Something Completely Different

Tennessee tries a new approach to teacher unions: ‘collaborative conferencing’

If Michigan’s lawmakers really want to get out of the teachers union box and open up room for daring education reforms, they might want to check out what’s going on in Tennessee, where the Legislature has completely remade labor relations into something that hopefully can work for both teachers and students.

Tennessee is replacing its teacher collective bargaining law with a process of “collaborative conferencing.” Rather than appointing a single representative that speaks for all teachers — including those who openly oppose the union, the new law allows any union or professional association with substantial support to have a seat at the bargaining table. Contract negotiations are focused on bread-and-butter workplace issues like wages, benefits and basic working conditions, leaving the district free to decide things like teaching assignments, evaluation criteria and merit pay. Tennessee has a right-to-work law that prevents all workers, teachers included, from being forced to pay union dues as a condition of employment, and the new law prevents schools from collecting union political funds as well.

Most importantly, while school districts are required to meet with teacher representatives and are allowed to enter into a binding “memorandum of understanding” (that’s a fancy word for a contract) they are not required to. If a contract is in the best interests of the district and students, then the school board can sign one. If not, they are free to deal with teachers as individuals.

Government employee union officials may think this is radical, but what it really represents is the Tennessee Legislature trying to find a balance between the rights of school employees and the needs of the public. There’s a critical distinction that comes into play here: Teachers have a first amendment right to join a union, but they do not have the right to collective bargaining — the US Supreme Court has made this fairly clear — and they do not have the right to a standard-issue union contract with burdensome work rules and assignments based strictly on seniority.

The new law is novel, and success is not guaranteed. School boards could wind up trying to bargain with multiple teacher groups with very different goals. Teachers unions could use their political clout to game the system. Courts could fail to enforce limits. But Tennessee lawmakers deserve credit for taking on public-sector collective bargaining and treating it as a privilege, not a right.

Tennessee could have outlawed teacher collective bargaining outright. Instead, they left the door open, but if the system works as intended, unions will need to convince school boards that the contracts they offer will improve schools. This is entirely fair to teachers if you think about it; no school board should be pressured into signing a contract, with a teachers union or anyone else, unless the board is persuaded that the contract is good for students.

Depending on the district, unions may still play a vital role as advocates for teachers. A smart school board will want to know that teachers are satisfied with their pay and working conditions, and will want teachers to buy in fully to their academic programs. A union that can serve as an honest broker between school boards and teachers could prove valuable under the new law. A union that makes unreasonable demands will have its chance to rant, but will not be able to stop schools from educating students. And teachers who don’t support the union can have their own advocate. Tennessee’s “collaborative conferencing” law may be the solution to the teachers union problem. For the sake of Tennessee’s schoolchildren, let’s hope it works as planned.