When Jerry Winters, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association, was questioned by reporters Wednesday following the passage of an amended SB113/HB130 through a state House education subcommittee, he described the bill, which gives the TEA and its affiliates a fighting chance to maintain their collective bargaining rights, as representing “progress, though not a victory.”
Given that the original version of the bill, as proposed by state Rep. Debra Maggart (R-Hendersonville), amounted to an absolute abolishment of bargaining rights for teachers’ unions and the amended bill would restore those rights, merely raising the voting threshold by which individual unions — oops, teachers’ associations — could gain the right to represent teachers, wouldn’t that be a compromise?
Well, no, explained Winters, because the TEA itself was never invited to supply any input during direct negotiations with the ruling GOP majority — nor, so far as he knew, were members of the General Assembly’s Democratic contingent.
Pressed again after the reporters’ queue had broken up, Winters was asked: If, from Maggart’s point of view, the original version of the bill was a 10, and from his own a 0, what number would he now assign it? The low-key but very focused TEA head furrowed his brow a bit and finally said, “5” — which number, it will be noted, is exactly equidistant between his own original estimate of its impact and that of the bill’s sponsor.
As for Maggart, the GOP House caucus chair, who, in her introductory remarks before a packed hearing room Wednesday, had excoriated teachers’ unions mercilessly, calling them “political” and blaming them for every possible shortcoming on the part of Tennessee public school students, wouldn’t she acknowledge that the amended bill had considerably weakened her original intent?
“No,” she said, though the new version of the bill would no longer outlaw teachers’ unions as bargaining units for teachers’ rights, wages, and other benefits, as her original version did. “Because it allows other professional organizations that want to represent teachers a fair chance to do so.”
And, when asked, state Rep. Lois DeBerry of Memphis, a subcommittee member, stood by a statement made in debate by Democratic colleague Jimmy Naifeh of Covington that the amended bill represented no compromise at all. Apprised of Winters’ more lenient estimate, she opined that the amended version had been sprung on subcommittee members too soon before Wednesday’s meeting to permit a full appraisal.
Indeed, the amended version had come late in the day — brokered, it was reliably said, by Governor Bill Haslam and by House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville. (Both these ranking Republicans are, by the standards of the many GOP fire-eaters who now occupy seats in the legislature, bona fide moderates, though both would doubtless prefer walking barefoot over hot coals to admitting such a thing.)
Technically, the amended version of the bill offered Wednesday came from state Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), who reflected the more relaxed, less polarized complexion of things by assuring the teacher-heavy audience, which had groaned audibly upon hearing that union dues check-offs would, as before, be prohibited, that he, and the full Education Committee, would be happy to hear out teachers’ views on the issue before full passage.
As Harwell pointed out in her own availability with reporters, the amended bill excludes from collective bargaining certain issues — merit pay for exceptional teachers, for instance — and certain personnel, notably school principals, who could no longer be represented by the unions.
And the established teachers’ unions not only would have to compete with rival organizations of whatever sort to represent teachers, their threshold for acquiring representation rights was considerably raised. Henceforth, a petition for an election to represent teachers in a given locality would require the signature of “a majority of the professional employees” instead of the 30 percent required at present. Moreover, a full majority of those eligible to vote — not just those casting ballots — would have to approve the union’s bid.
On the whole, the amended bill would seem to leave some of the traditional public-school scaffolding in place while making room for some modish management-minded changes. The exclusion of principals from representation, for example, reflects a view in certain education circles that principals should not be primus inter pares vis-à-vis with their schools’ teachers but de facto straw bosses, representing a central ruling authority.
There are numerous other provisions of the hastily amended bill that, as Rep. DeBerry pointed out, will require some serious parsing to ascertain their full effect on the status quo regarding teachers and collective bargaining rights.
And Susanne Jackson of Memphis, one of numerous Memphis Education Association representatives who made the trip to Nashville to lobby against SB113/HB130, said the bill remained unsatisfactory and would need further amendment, either next week, when the amended version will doubtless come up for floor passage in both Senate and House, or, more likely, in future legislative sessions down the road, when the composition of both chambers might no longer feature such stout Republican majorities.
That day would seem to be pretty far down the road, however. For now, adjustments to this or any other measure would seem to depend on negotiations among the ruling Republicans. Difference of opinion among House Republicans was generally conceded to have been the key to the changes in the bill — along with, to be sure, the show of force made by teachers themselves in a series of private communications and public demonstrations.
As for Democrats, who are outnumbered 20 to 13 in the Senate and 65-34 in the House, they are, more or less, in the position of spectators. Wednesday’s developments indicated that compromise is alive and well in the General Assembly — just not of the bipartisan sort.