Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Understanding Collective Bargaining

Perhaps the most controversial piece of legislation yet to emerge from this General Assembly is collective bargaining reform, known as House File 291. You may recall hearing or reading of the large crowds at legislative forums several weeks back, and the protests that occurred at the Capitol in advance of the floor debate in the House and Senate. This legislation dramatically scales back the number of items that unions can negotiate [for] under public sector bargaining in Iowa. To understand these changes, it first might be helpful to discuss how collective bargaining used to work. 

In Iowa many teachers are represented by an association, or what you may commonly refer to as a labor union. The Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) is the statewide branch of the National Education Association (NEA), and the Hudson Education Association (HEA) is the local branch that represents our teachers. A function of these local associations is to negotiate wages and benefits with management. In Hudson, this negotiation is done annually around this time of year. In my role as superintendent, I negotiate with the HEA on behalf of the Board of Directors, representing management. The Board of Directors and I collaborate to develop strategy, positions, and targets for salaries and benefits. Across the table from us are representatives from the HEA. They too work with the members of their organization to develop strategy, positions and targets for salary and benefits. When we sit down to negotiate there is rarely agreement, which is natural and expected.

Issues related to the collective bargaining agreement were categorized in one of three ways: mandatory, permissive, or illegal. Mandatory subjects of bargaining are those that we had to discuss if the other party to the negotiation wanted to discuss them. A few examples of mandatory items included wages, insurance, seniority, transfer procedures, evaluation procedures, and leave. Permissive subjects of bargaining are those which could be discussed only if both parties agreed. An example of a permissive subject of bargaining included what is known in education circles as 'prep' time. Finally, there are items of bargaining that are considered illegal, meaning they can't be discussed regardless of whether or not a party wants to discuss them. In our world, IPERS has always been considered an illegal subject of bargaining.

As contract negotiations would commence, each side presents a proposal and the other side responds with a counter proposal. The goal is to reach a voluntary agreement. In cases where voluntary settlement can't be reached on a mandatory subject of bargaining, it is remedied through binding arbitration. Binding arbitration is essentially a legal proceeding where an arbitrator considers the final offers of both parties and then selects whichever one is most 'reasonable'. The 'stick' in negotiations was arbitration because the arbitrator's ruling picks one side over the other. Because of this, most contracts in Iowa had been settled voluntarily to avoid the gamble of arbitration. Further, the rules of arbitration, including what could be entered into evidence and the variables that must be considered made arbitration very unappealing.

The change that was enacted with House File 291 makes base wages the only mandatory subject of bargaining. Many of the other subjects that were previously mandatory are now classified as either illegal or permissive. Further, the rules of arbitration have changed. Now the arbitrator is bound to select one of two positions for the final settlement: either 3% or the current CPI rate, whichever is lower at the time.

There is no doubt these changes dramatically alter the process and procedures of collective bargaining. Indeed this legislation gives local school board another tool with which to control costs. With very low supplemental state aid (1.11%), controlling costs is extraordinarily difficult. Further, the announcement from the REC yesterday (for the third time in a row) reduced the economic outlook for FY2017, throwing a wet blanket on the remainder of this fiscal year, and setting up the next fiscal year with a $191 million decrease in projected revenue.

We are now preparing to negotiate the contract with our local HEA under this new set of rules. In spite of these changes, we have a difficult needle to thread. Just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean that we should. It would be wise for all school districts to proceed cautiously. Good schools are so because of the teachers that work in them. Hudson is a great school district because we have great teachers, and we have the results that prove it. The data points that illustrate this are vast, but look no further than the Iowa School Report Card as one example.

It should come as no surprise that our single greatest asset is our teachers. Without good teachers, we will not have good schools. Unsurprisingly, this commodity will be driven by the market. Great teachers will work in schools and in districts where they are fairly compensated, treated with respect, and have a sense of belonging where their voices are heard. I'll say this again: a difficult needle to thread in this new era of collective bargaining where management is charged with the fiduciary responsibility of balancing a budget within the context of little supplemental state aid.

As we begin this new process I am certain there will be disagreements. But nevertheless, our commitment to the teaching staff is to continue providing a competitive compensation structure where the Hudson Community School District is the employer of choice for educators in the Cedar Valley. We will continue to be a great school.

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