Let's take the bite out of labor negotiations

Todd Fuller
Posted on March 1, 2002

Last year I found myself involved in negotiations between various groups of educators, administrators and board members for a school district in Missouri. During our discussions, one of the board members repeatedly asked, “How do your requests help children?” That question forced me to re-evaluate the mindset with which I enter any negotiation session. The bedrock philosophy of the association for which I work is “children first.” That phrase is on the clothing I wear and the publications our association produces for our members. “Children first” should serve as a foundation for any negotiations between any groups that interact with kids on a daily basis. I also realized that there were other basic foundations on which all parties should agree when they come to the table to negotiate. Agreement on these points will help build relationships rather than create an adversarial atmosphere. We’re all eating from the same pot
A common misconception that I deal with early in negotiations is that there are secret reserves of money, perhaps hidden away in a Caribbean bank account for one heck of a school board retreat in July. In reality, school district funds are more like a glass house than an ironclad vault. As patrons and employees of the district, we just need to know how and where to look. I work for a unique association. It is not a union, yet we represent bus drivers all over the state. I have made an assertion in many school districts that earns me looks of stunned amazement. If there is only one financial pie, I say, why don’t we all come to the table together to divvy it up? In other words, we should create and develop a negotiation team that has the best interests of the district and its students in mind. Many school districts find themselves in adversarial relationships among bus drivers, paraprofessionals, custodians, teachers, administrators and the list goes on. Not only does an “us vs. them” mentality exist, but a far more damaging “us vs. them vs. them vs. them” attitude is pervasive throughout the district. Inclusive negotiations allow everyone, not just administrators and board members, to hear the interests and needs of the transportation professionals who serve as one piece of a school district’s pie. No need for financial secrecy
District finance does not have to be a mystery. I remember the first time I learned how a district budgets for a given year. I thought for sure that I was hearing a foreign language. However, after a few hours I gained enough of an understanding to be able to explain finance to others. Unions and associations have a responsibility to empower their members with understanding so they too can be well informed when they enter into any negotiation situation. As a spokesperson for an association I have very little credibility with a school district. I am not an employee nor am I a patron of the district. An individual who serves as a representative and employee of the district should be the person who communicates any information concerning salary discussions. I want our members to have the tools they need to make negotiations not only successful but congenial as well. Often I am the white elephant looming in the corner of the room. Understanding the basics of school finance allows our members to shoo me out of the meeting and feel confident that they can proceed on their own. Negotiators, not adversaries
School districts should not espouse a one-negotiation-model-fits-all mentality. Something I appreciate about Missouri is the opportunity that school districts have to develop a negotiation model that works best in their community. Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education believes that many of the primary weaknesses in education contracts stem from their reliance on a model developed by factory workers decades before the first education contracts were ever designed. Johnson notes that traditional bargaining is based on the assumption that all the groups coming to the table have differing interests. Thus, an adversarial atmosphere exists before any conversation ever takes place, and the end result is a learning environment that is detrimental to children. School districts need to have the option to develop a model that works best in their community. The best structure for urban communities may not be particularly suited for rural communities. However, as is the case with the process itself, everyone should have the opportunity to develop the model. Only then will all parties involved have a true sense of ownership. Every individual employed by a school district is a part of the whole. We are all working to provide opportunities that are best for children. Many of the ideas brought to the bargaining table are ripe for interpretation and negotiation. Our children’s needs, however, are not negotiable.

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