Teacher strike ban in line for a rework — at least

Among all the contentious issues facing this year’s legislature, one has made a surprising, and enduring, appearance near the top of the list. Everyone seems to have suddenly decided that teacher strikes are a scourge of our system, and must be put to an end.

This, in spite of the fact that teacher strikes are only a little bit more common than hen’s teeth in Vermont. We would seem to have much bigger fish to fry, but apparently not.

Last week, the House Education Committee approved a bill that appeared even-handed at first glance: H.76 would ban teacher strikes, and would also bar school boards from unilaterally imposing contract terms. The bill sped through the committee without so much as a single amendment, passing on an 8-3 vote.

(The four Democrats who voted “yes” along with all four Republicans, for those keeping score, were Sarah Buxton, Kevin “Coach” Christie, Emily Long, and Ann Manwaring. All four hail from districts on or near the Connecticut River, if that means anything.)

The bill is now pending before the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, which is responsible for labor-related legislation. And members of that committee are not at all happy with H.76 in its current form. They believe the bill is weighted heavily toward the school boards and against the teachers, and they want significant changes.

H.76 was a subject of conversation at Saturday’s Democratic State Committee meeting. Speaker Shap Smith, as I reported previously, said the bill “will not pass the House in its present form.” And Rep. Tom Stevens of Waterbury, a member of the General Etc. Committee, said H.76 is “not a labor-friendly bill,” and that it “has a million problems.”

I caught up with Rep. Stevens afterward, and asked him what’s wrong with H.76.

This bill says that we will get rid of the right to strike and we will get rid of the right to impose a contract by the school boards, and we will replace it with this somewhat drawn-out process, and it could take eighteen months rather than what we have now.

And there’s the rub. Eighteen months is as good as forever in contract talks. Teachers couldn’t be saddled with an imposed contract, but they might have to work for a year or more under a continuation of their old deal.

…if the teachers can’t strike, they go back to work and they don’t get a pay increase, they don’t get a step increase, their health benefits will remain the same. … So they’re taking a very serious financial hit, and yet the school boards are not penalized equally.

As originally introduced, the bill created an even-handedly draconian process for resolving impasses: mandatory binding arbitration. But that language was struck somewhere along the way, and replaced with a potentially lengthy process of fact-finding and mediation.

The bill’s path through the Education Committee, according to Stevens, was awfully quick: “They only took three hours of testimony, and they passed the bill as it stands.” And it moved at warp speed despite the opposition of committee chair David Sharpe, who was one of three “no” votes on the bill. You’d think he could have done more about this if he cared. To be fair, he’s had an awful lot on his plate this session; he might have let this go through to avoid a fight, secure in the knowledge that it could be amended later on.

The General Etc. Committee had already taken up an earlier version of H.76, but now they’ve taken it back. Stevens:

…we had a reintroduction to the bill because it was way different. We took testimony Friday, we’ll probably take more testimony Tuesday, and then we’ll try to figure out from there what we’re going to do. We have several options, but I would say our committee is not disposed to support it as written.

The committee has several options, but not much time; it needs to act by the middle of this week. It could refuse to take up the bill; it could send it through without recommendation, it could vote the bill down — but that wouldn’t necessarily kill the bill, or at least the concept.

It’s possible we could not have a recommendation, and that’s where we would work with leadership to decide what to do with the bill, because we’re pretty certain that if this particular bill doesn’t come out, that this bill will become an amendment on the floor from another party, and then it will be discussed anyway. So spiking it isn’t really a viable option.

If Speaker Smith’s words to the DSC are taken at face value, the Education Committee’s version of H.76 will not pass the House. It could pass in amended form. That seems the most likely outcome; if the original concept was restored — no strikes, no imposition, binding arbitration — then the bill would most likely win House approval. The school boards don’t like that; as one lawmaker put it, “they’d rather have Ebola than binding arbitration.”

But if the bill sets up a dead end for the teachers and a long and winding road for school boards, it would fundamentally alter the power dynamic between unions and boards. And for what? Teacher strikes are rare in Vermont, and almost always brief. Why upset the applecart — and alienate a core Democratic constituency — to fix such a minor problem?

Thankfully, according to Smith and Stevens, it isn’t likely to come to that.

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