Teacher Contract Negotiations

As an external observer of the contract negotiations in New Jersey, it is apparent that certain negotiation criteria were not exhibited. The jailing of any public employee is inconceivable in a democracy. After review of the material and events that occurred, I have made some suggestions regarding the preparations, discussion, proposals, and closing of their contract dispute. This is an interesting case. My own school system just underwent the exact same dispute. The school committee wanted to raise our health insurance contribution from 20% to 25%. The union did not agree with this new measure in our contract. The union threatened to strike. In fact, we picketed every day for two weeks prior to school and held three largely attended rallies. In the end, the union won. The school department withdrew the health insurance issue from the table and no teachers were jailed. Perhaps, Massachusetts learned something from New Jersey.

When preparing for negotiations, you have to know your opponent. In most cases, you have already had to deal with your opponent on different levels and now it was the time to meet face to face. Some teachers in New Jersey had accused the school board of unfair bargaining for years. If this was the case, why did the teachers union expect anything different? It seems as if the teachers union was expecting a more empathetic board considering September 11 had recently moved the nation to unite. However, the situation did not unite the city and it’s teachers. In my opinion, the teachers union thought it would have an easy fight. In a way, it doesn’t seem as if they prepared well. The teachers needed to understand the options that they had available. Additionally, the union needed to know the options the opponent also had available. The teachers thought a “strike” was their weapon. The opponents had more weapons. The school board, enlisting the help of the court system, jailed members of the union. You would think the citizens would stand with the teachers and fight. This was not the case. The citizens condemned the teacher’s actions because the decision to strike affects all. The teachers were not prepared for a fight. The teachers were not prepared for anything.

When opposing sides meet the discussion must be an exchange. The exchange must represent the ideas, information, offer, and counter-offers normally associated within the bargaining table. We must remember that first impressions do make lasting impressions. Therefore, the most important thing to remember is to present yourself in a professional manner. Body language can tell more than words. When I read about the New Jersey teacher in court wearing a baseball cap, I was confused? Why would you disrespect the court by wearing obviously inappropriate attire? It is important to be conscious of your approach, attitude, and style, in order for discussions to receive the respect and importance it deserves. It seemed as if what both sides lacked in this standoff was discussion. Both parties were not listening to one another. The teachers were too eager to jump to conclusions and the union was too adamant on rejecting proposals offered by the union.

It is obvious that what my colleagues and I experienced was similar to the New Jersey teachers. The union did not want to pay more for their health insurance. The health issue became the center point of the contract negotiation referring to it as the “major sticking point” of the negotiations. I seem to question why the health issue became the center point? Wasn’t the purpose of going to negotiations was to establish a new contract? Health insurance costs are a small portion of the budget and can be offset by salary demands. In fact, that is what our union did. Instead of requesting a large increase in salary (perhaps 15% over three years), we agreed to settle for 11% over three years and not have our insurance premiums increase. The New Jersey teachers allowed the health insurance issue to be the “end-all” point. Basically, it seemed as if the union backed itself into a corner and could only save it’s negotiation integrity by coming out fighting, and lost.

When we think about some of the things “not” to do in the negotiation phase, it is apparent the New Jersey teachers were suspect. For example, saying words like “martyrs” and using phrases like “we’ve never settled a contract peacefully” is setting the stage for a fight. In many ways the union did not listen to what the school board’s needs were? By using verbal attacks with the media, the union has not been able to listen and use the valuable information normally offered at such professional negotiations. Concepts, perceptions, and positions are spoken and moved and altered during this process. What happens in many of these cases is the negotiating team only has ten members. Based on the number of New Jersey teachers involved, the negotiating team represents about 1 percent of the entire union.

The union should have adopted behavior that best suited their needs. They should have been direct, polite, and professional. This type of behavior will win support of the community and other unions. When the teachers decided not to teach and not to work, they inconvenienced their customers: the public. Parents were forced to find baby-sitters and in some cases, staying home themselves. The day a school does not open is a day that affects many. The union should have realized that not going to work was not a viable and professional decision. During my union’s negotiations we decided to “work to rule”, which meant that we would not miss a day of work during the negotiations. Basically, it meant that once 2:30 came, the teachers were technically “off the clock” and were instructed to go home and not participate in any extra-curricular activity. Thus, all sports were suspended. However, never once was education jeopardized or the community opinion. In fact, the community embraced us for our professionalism. New Jersey made an error by thinking of themselves before their students. No one ever goes into teaching to become a millionaire. We go into teaching because we love kids.

The New Jersey teachers never understood the school board. They only saw the school board as wanting to make them pay more money for their health insurance. By not listening, they could not see what was inhibiting them from making progress. Sometimes it is necessary to go two steps back to in fact go one step forward. Anything forward in this case would have been a first good step. Sending teachers to jail is equivalent to taking ten steps back.

Proposals are not always solutions. Reason being, the proposals are always one sided. Both sides need to gain “something”, and in some cases “anything”. The teachers union in NJ was trying to gain everything. That is where their problem started. There are always conditions to proposals, and when we listen to proposals we do three things in return: pose questions, think about the proposal, and present a counter-proposal. The newspaper clippings do not mention many proposals. All they mention is the teachers refusing to follow a court order, ordering them to return to being teachers, return to being role models. This phase is so critical in the process. If an agreement can be made in the initial proposals, then closing the deal comes easier and sooner.

The union and the school board never got past initial proposals. They were never able to close anything. Actually, the only thing they managed to close was the schools. As I have already established closing schools is bad business for everyone! The strategies to adopt are professionalism. Emotions are things that need to be “tucked away” and pride cannot be your steering catalyst. Once negotiations make the table, the preparations, discussion, proposals, and closing should be respectful and professional. Unions and school boards waste time; and it doesn’t just happen in Middletown, NJ or in Brockton, MA. Sometimes we approach negotiations like children. When we don’t get what we want (perhaps a Cal Ripken baseball card for a Ryne Sandberg card), we take our balls and we go home. In this case, the NJ teachers union did not get what they wanted, refused to listen to reason, even when it was being offered by a judge, and decided that teacher jailing and closed schools was an option. If the union had been more professional, and had actually listened to their counterparts, they might have avoided this negative publicity. There is always room for “style points”, regardless of what you are selling.
I know my union might not have done a lot for my biweekly paycheck. However, my health insurance has not risen since I started. You take what you can and live with what you cant sometimes.

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