By Robert Letovsky
It has been five years since I left my positions as chairperson of the then-Chittenden East Supervisory Union Executive Committee and of the board’s Negotiations Committee. However, watching recent teacher contract talks in both Burlington and South Burlington, it’s clear that nothing has changed in the bargaining strategy and tactics of the teachers’ union.
It’s clear that the union game plan remains the same: delay, delay, delay then threaten the community with a strike. The union prolongs the negotiations process to the last possible moment, waiting for favorable compensation settlements in surrounding communities.
It knows that so-called “factfinders” are limited in what they can actually recommend, and invariably end up recommending these comparable settlements in their reports.
The days before a threatened strike are when the union feels it has maximum leverage, and when school boards have typically given in to its demands.
As new school board members quickly learn when they first get involved in teacher negotiations, they aren’t really bargaining with their local teachers. Instead, board members find that their local negotiations process is just one piece of a much larger, coordinated plan orchestrated by regional VT-NEA operatives.
In fact, there’s a regional and even statewide bargaining strategy based upon decades of experience and backed by a team of full-time union negotiators and lawyers. Facing this juggernaut are volunteer school boards, whose members have to juggle family, work and other obligations against the demands of an endless negotiating cycle.
No wonder union negotiators believe that the longer they delay meaningful contract talks, the more likely they are to be able to wear down school board members and the community into giving them what they want. This includes salaries that continue to grow at several times the rate of inflation and insurance benefits that are far superior to those enjoyed by average Vermonters.
What seems to have changed in recent months, however, is how some boards are responding to the old union tactics. These boards recognize that the salary growth trends of the past are simply not sustainable.
The old school board playbook was to passively agree to endless negotiations and silently accept the personal attacks which the union typically begins hurling against board members as negotiations dragged on.
Now, we are seeing school boards proclaiming openly and unashamedly that 10 months is more than enough time to reach a fair agreement, and that if after all that talking the union does not accept the board’s final offer, it will exercise its legal right to bring negotiations to a close.
My own experience, backed up by what I have seen in other districts, is that when school boards actually muster up the courage to impose an employment policy, the union realizes that it’s time for serious negotiations to begin. Unfortunately for everyone involved, that’s too late.
The union negotiating machine has to start getting that message that serious bargaining must start right away, that stalling and engaging in meaningful talks only when a strike looms around the corner is not acceptable, that the school boards’ words have meaning, and a fair final offer is just that, final.
Community members, legislators and journalists shouldn’t be fooled by the scripted union rhetoric which inevitably flows following imposition of an employment policy (“we just want the board to return to the bargaining table,” “we were so close to a settlement,” etc.). Let’s be clear: What the union wants is to ensure that there is no disruption in the continuous increase spending for its members’ salaries and benefits.
The bargaining marathons which have characterized almost every teacher contract negotiation in Vermont for years are tools used by the union to get what it wants. School boards are finally telling union leaders that endless meetings and frantic last minute offers don’t represent serious negotiations.
Hopefully, the union rank and file will demand that their leaders start meaningful bargaining when contract negotiations begin, not a few days before a strike.
Robert Letovsky, of Jericho, previously served as chairman of the Executive and Negotiations committees of the then-Chittenden East Supervisory Union (now the Mount Mansfield Modified Union School District).