Politically Thinking: A better answer for teacher strikes?

Public schools in Burlington were closed for four days last month because of a teachers’ strike. South Burlington teachers had announced plans to strike this week, but early Wednesday they were able to agree on a contract with the school board.
Even though teachers’ strikes are actually quite rare in Vermont (there have only been about 30 strikes since collective bargaining became the rule in the late 1960s), some legislators want to address the issue through passing a new statute. Two legislative Republicans, Rep. Kurt Wright of Burlington and Sen. Joe Benning of the Caledonia district, want the Legislature to outlaw both teachers’ unions going on strike and school boards’ imposing contracts on teachers.
The difficulty with the Wright-Benning legislation is that it includes no mechanisms or incentives for resolving contract disputes. Even after mediation, unions and school boards would need to continue talking until one side finally gives in to the other. The likely impact of such a proposal would be a higher number of districts where no agreement could be reached, with teachers continuing to work under the terms of prior years’ contracts. Such an outcome would neither contribute to the morale of teaching staffs nor would it allow school boards to focus on issues other than labor contracts, such as the implementation of school consolidation, or plans for needed renovation of school buildings.
Because teacher strikes are infrequent in Vermont, there may be no pressing need for a legislative response. However, if the Legislature wants to pass a bill that would ensure that Vermont students would never lose class days to teachers’ strikes, a model exists in a nearby state.
Since 1979, Connecticut law has required that public school contract disputes that cannot be settled through negotiation and mediation must be resolved by having each side submit its best final offer to binding arbitration. The arbitrator chooses to accept one side’s offer and reject the other, and the accepted offer establishes the terms of the contract.
The argument for binding arbitration as a conflict resolution mechanism is that it forces both sides to submit reasonable final offers, since the arbitrators are limited to choosing from the offers before them. In recent years, approximately 10 percent of expiring teachers’ contracts in Connecticut have not been settled by negotiation or mediation by the statutory deadline (about four months before the local government needs to set its budget and tax rate for the following year), and have gone to arbitration.
The history of arbitrators’ decisions is that 51 percent of the time the arbitrators chose the school board’s last best offer, and 49 percent of the time they chose the union’s last best offer. The fact that the “winners” of arbitration in Connecticut are so evenly divided is generally considered to show that the system is working as intended, with both sides submitting final offers that are considered reasonable and not out of realistic bounds.
The arbitration system in Connecticut does have its critics. They argue, first, that arbitration means the final decisions on school budgets are made by people who are not subject to having to pay the taxes needed to support those budgets. The critics’ second point is that, over time, arbitration results in higher salaries, and higher taxes, than if strikes or imposition of contract terms were permitted.
Perhaps for the second reason, public employee labor unions are generally willing to accept binding arbitration schemes, while local elected officials are not. Here in Vermont, the National Education Association has said that, while it would prefer to see no changes in the statutory framework for teacher contract negotiations, it would accept a binding arbitration proposal. The Vermont School Boards’ Association would prefer the continuation of the status quo to an arbitration scheme.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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