Sunday, October 30, 2011

Occupy Negotiations

Working people have to stop fighting against each other and start fighting for each other.  Peering through the lens of the Occupy movement, it’s obvious that the people I sit with in the negotiations room here in Vermont, both board and teachers, are part of the 99%.  I seriously doubt anyone in the room has an annual income in excess of $516,000.  When we distract ourselves with labor-management fratricide, we work for our oppressors, for truly we have far more in common with each other than with David Koch, Rupert Murdoch, the Walton family, or Bill Gates.  Solidarity means not just circling the union wagons, but identifying with and actively promoting the legitimate aspirations of our communities.
The adversarial culture that persists in our negotiation process here in Vermont thwarts those aspirations and plays into the interests of the 1%.  This culture is self inflicted.  Both boards and teachers have choices about how they do business.  If we make better choices, we can free political energy for the fight for social justice.
Let me emphasize, I do not believe that collective bargaining is itself inherently adversarial.  Too many times, however, the parties choose to be adversarial.  Collective bargaining is a fundamental public good.  It is incumbent on participants to improve the process so that this public good can truly achieve its potential in terms of promoting great educational outcomes and social justice.
As a veteran negotiator, I can attest to the human costs of an exclusively adversarial process.  In my supervisory union, which has gone to the brink of crisis build-up three consecutive times, teams of teachers put in excess of 2000 hours of time into a process which in the final analysis produces minimal new money and a few incremental changes in contract language.  I am sure a similar commitment is made by the board team.

In addition, the board spends tens of thousands of dollars on a labor attorney, and both sides spend thousands more on private mediators and fact finders.  All this time and treasure has the net effect of preserving a degraded status quo.  Teachers experience gradual erosion of pay and working conditions; board and administration gain nothing in terms of the sort of flexibility that would enable them to manage for better student learning.  Taxes rise to pay for this state of affairs.  So do union dues.

But above and beyond the wasteful stalemate produced by the political theater of an adversarial negotiations culture, the true costs of systemic dysfunction occur when the poisonous dispositions of labor-management conflict filter down to schools and classrooms.  Classrooms at their best are deeply collaborative learning environments; they need to be supported by collaborative processes at the building level, at the supervisory union level, ultimately at the state and federal level.

For example, teachers who do not trust their administrators cannot benefit from evaluation, no matter how well designed or intentioned.  Collaboration at all levels is the foundation for improved teaching practice.  And who are the victims of the status quo?  Students.

How can we advance the cause of collaboration?  Part of the answer lies in reform of the negotiation process.

There is a growing body of research and practice on labor-management collaboration.   Contemporary conflict management techniques go back over thirty years.  In addition to the positional or adversarial bargaining that dominates our landscape, it includes at least three other tools:

  • Interest based bargaining, which strives to create solutions by drilling down through the positions that animate traditional adversarial bargaining, to the underlying interests in order to create novel solutions which address the true aspirations of the participants.
  • Expanded scope bargaining, which strives to assimilate the expertise of the practitioner into the public policy process and uses the negotiation process as the gateway.
  • Continuous bargaining, in which parties take up problems as they arise, devise solutions, and roll them into the contract.  This reduces the sheer quantity of items saved up for the formal negotiations process, and simplifies the task of reaching agreement.  Problems do not fester.
This enhanced conflict management tool set provides means of effectively resolving a wider range of problems.  We in Vermont suffer from the “rule of the tool”: when the only tool in your kit is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  But not every problem in teacher negotiations is a distributive problem, a problem of carving up a finite pie.  Many problems of working conditions are not finite, and allow for a broad range of creative solutions.  Using positional bargaining techniques on these problems drains the creativity out of the process, and denies our children the benefits of the best possible teaching.
Negotiations reform, however necessary, is not sufficient to drive progress.  For that we need to look at the literature on ground breaking districts nationally, districts which have achieved deep and sustained collaborative relationships which have driven systemic change and education reform. One such study is Collaborative School Reform: Creating Partnerships To Improve School Systems From Within by Saul Rubinstein, and John McCarthy, which was published by Rutgers University in October, 2010.  This ground breaking study looks at six districts which have achieved a deep and abiding collaborative labor-management relationship, from the giant Hillsborough (FL) school district, a famous Gates deep-dive district with over 200,000 students, to tiny Plattsburgh (NY), with less than 2000.
In May 2011 the United States Department of Education published Local Labor Management Relationships as a Vehicle to Advance Reform: Findings from the U.S. Department of Education’s Labor Management Conference by Jonathan Eckert et al.  I was part of the research team.  This study highlighted the work of twelve districts nationwide which had achieved a high level of labor-management collaboration, including four from the Rutgers study. 
A salient feature of this study is the diversity of the districts that had reformed their labor-management relations.  There were districts like Winston-Salem Forsythe (NC) from a southern right to work state, and the Green Dot Charter chain, as well as districts enjoying the benefits of strong pro-labor laws, like Plattsburgh (NY) and ABC Unified (CA).
What distinguishes these districts is the willingness of leaders to take a risk, and put the end goal of the enterprise first: great student learning.  Students truly represent the aspirations of communities.
Here in Vermont it is time for bold and visionary leaders to sit together in order to remake our relationship.  The way forward is by following the example of best practice nationally.
Specifically, we need to:
  • Be humble enough to step back from deeply ingrained habits of thought and practice, and use contemporary conflict management techniques.
  • Draw on the resources that exist nationally to help us solve our problems.  In particular, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is available at no cost to facilitate our moving forward.
  • Build policy expertise in labor management collaboration through study of the extant literature and through contact with successful models. 
  • People need to start talking WITH each other about the possibilities for change rather than talking AT each other by positional/adversarial habit. 
This is hard work, and will take time and resources.  Those of us genuinely interested in benefitting students and communities should be taking on the tough problems rather than persisting in behavior which only serves the interests of the 1% who would squeeze our communities dry.

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