Bargaining in Public? Pressure Builds on Colorado Teachers Unions

Kari Lydersen

Teachers union contract negotiations — often bitter, contentious and usually held behind closed doors — will be open to the public in Douglas County, Colo., thanks to an agreement between the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, the school board and a parent-led reform group that had called for the move.

After the agreement was signed last week, all parties described it as a desirable and win-win situation. But positive statements from union leaders and parents did not reflect the tension that had boiled around the proposal, including inflammatory rhetoric from local politicians and packed public meetings where people wore red or black shirts to signify which side they were on.

The situation in Douglas County, where the school board is strongly conservative and has instituted a school choice” voucher program, is something of a test case for proposed state legislation that would mandate all teachers union negotiations statewide be public. The Colorado Education Association and many local affiliates have strongly opposed the bill, which was proposed by Republican State Rep. Kathleen Conti and assigned to committee.

The website EdNews​Col​orado​.org quotes CEA spokesman Mike Wetzel:

Opening bargaining sessions to the public could lead to harmful speculation and gossip in the community … and runs counter to the ability of districts and associations to communicate openly and honestly and to find new, innovative solutions that will ultimately benefit the education of children.

In Colorado Springs, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity has also been pushing for open contract negotiations and picketing outside regular closed-door contract negotiation meetings. Colorado Springs is a hotbed of conservative political activism, including a strong focus on home schooling and policing curricula for content offensive to some fundamentalist Christians. The Colorado Springs public school districts have also been embattled financially, with successive rounds of budget cuts over the past few years including a projection that this year will bring cuts of $4 million to $9 million in some districts, making teacher furlough days and layoffs likely.

Last spring, a Colorado Springs district did allow the public to attend a meeting between union and district officials, largely to satisfy a clause in the master contract that called for one such meeting at the beginning of negotiations. Parent Chad Lawson had filed a complaint about negotiations starting without a public meeting. The website EdNews​Col​orado​.org reported on the underwhelming results of the March 2011 public meeting, including that Lawson did not (as of when that article was published) drop his complaint:

For all the brouhaha over public vs. closed meetings, the scheduled 12-hour session only found a handful of people present at any one time. About 65 people attended throughout the day. Attendance peaked at 22 in mid-afternoon.

Strangely, a Colorado Springs Gazette editorial expressed sympathy for the teachers’ opposition to open negotiations, then made the leap that tension over teachers contracts might be a reason for getting rid of collective bargaining by public employees altogether:

It’s easy to understand the allure of closing negotiations to the public. A contract, especially a master agreement that governs a tremendous assortment of employer-employee relationship details, is complex to say the least. Facilitating strangers from the district, who may wish to niggle each detail, could make an arduous process almost unworkable. At the end of the day, we all want what’s best for the kids and teachers — too many of whom are underpaid for the important work they do.

Maybe society should be coping with none of these struggles in the future — in Madison, Wis., Colorado Springs or elsewhere. Maybe it’s time to rethink the whole notion of public employees collectively bargaining with employers, before more showdowns begin like what we’ve seen in Wisconsin.

To explore the flip side of both of the Gazettes arguments, maybe the battles over public unionism could be a reason to give public negotiations or some limited form of them a try — so that members of the public can get a better understanding of the complexity of the issues and the hard work that teachers do; or hold their tongues if they have the option to attend negotiations and do not.

Take a blog on the Education Action Group’s website about the Douglas County move. The EAG promotes school choice” and generally opposes teachers unions. The site also includes a post promoting challenges to the campaign to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, an enemy, of course, of public sector unions in general, including teachers unions. Ben Velderman of EAG wrote:

[Public negotiations in Douglas County are] a fresh approach, considering most teacher unions typically insist on making their expensive demands behind closed doors, where reporters and taxpayers can’t hear them…Taxpayers are given the mushroom treatment.” They are kept in the dark about what is being negotiated and how much it will cost them, while being plied with generous amounts of organic” material. They only get to see the final contract after the ink is dry and amendments are impossible.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has been in extremely contentious negotiations with the teachers union, with union president Karen Lewis and the mayor going to the media after closed-door talks with conflicting versions of what happened. More transparency would let the public see for themselves in the case of disputed stories, like Lewis’ recent contention that Emanuel said one quarter of Chicago public schools students will never amount to anything — which Emanuel denies. These were not official contract negotiations so still wouldn’t necessarily be subject to a law like Colorado’s proposal).

But whether or not the status quo changes, tensions will surely continue to mount between public-sector unions trying to hold onto what they’ve bargained for, and municipalities sometimes led by officials hostile to organized labor.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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