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Life Without Collective Bargaining: What Would It Look Like?

What would happen on the ground if Tennessee lawmakers pass a bill to eliminate collective bargaining for teachers?

This is a good question raised by Linda Perlstein of the Education Writers' Association that I should have discussed in greater detail in my recent Education Week story about Republican moves to curb or eliminate teacher bargaining.

With respect to teachers, there are five states that prohibit bargaining, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, while in 11 other states, bargaining is permitted but not mandatory. Tennessee is unusual in that state law makes teachers the only public employees who can collectively bargain.

If the Tennessee bill passes—and it's got a shot given the Republican dominated legislature—it would severely restrict local affiliates' clout. But it wouldn't mean the end of the union or its influence, for a couple of reasons.

First, consider "meet and confer" arrangements which exist mainly in non-bargaining states or districts where the union doesn't represent enough teachers to trigger bargaining. Under these arrangements, the association has a right to discuss wages and working conditions with administrators, although nothing from the discussions is legally binding.

About 16 percent of Tennessee teachers now work under meet-and-confer arrangements, according to federal data sources.

The current Tennessee Education Professionals Negotiations Act doesn't mention meet and confer, NEA officials told me. So, while such arrangements aren't officially sanctioned, they're apparently not illegal either. (That seems to be generally the case across the nation. Richard Hurd, a professor at Cornell University, said meet-and-confer arrangements tend to be set locally or by city ordinance.)

The Tennessee Education Association, meanwhile, could continue its lobbying and advocacy. In some states without bargaining, these state affiliates remain influential organizations. The North Carolina NEA affiliate, for instance, has been instrumental in winning policies such as one that pays teachers a 12 percent salary premium if they earn national-board certification.

It's safe to say that Tennessee teachers don't want to lose their bargaining rights, but lawmakers are probably mistaken if they think getting rid of bargaining means doing away with the union, too.

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