Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reforming Vermont Teacher Negotiations

There are better alternatives. Recent proposals in Vermont concerning changes to collective bargaining in Vermont are both unnecessary and counterproductive.  Defanging participants by prohibiting union strikes and board impositions is patently absurd because it strips the collective bargaining process of any means to force the two sides towards each other.  Replacing strikes and impositions with binding interest arbitration certainly has the potential to turn down the temperature, and it provides a means of bringing the sides together, but doesn’t get at the systems problem underlying the issue: the collective bargaining process we have in education was never designed for education.
I worry that legislative energy spent on tinkering around the edges of collective bargaining will be wasted.  It has the potential to create tremendous controversy without any payoff in terms of improved public policy. 
It will distract educators and boards from their primary task of producing great student learning.
The real next step in moving Vermont education forward via collective bargaining is reforming the process itself, reform that cannot be performed by legislative fiat.  Even as government leaders consider legalistic solutions to the chronic problem of strikes and near strikes in education, local leaders in Vermont are creating real solutions based on decades of research in alternative conflict management, using proven practices that can save districts and union tens of thousands of dollars, improve school climate, and make collective bargaining agreements into education improvement plans.
The main tool in this effort is Interest Based Bargaining (IBB.)  IBB is the term used for methods developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project in the 1980’s.  The classic formulation is found in the well known book Getting to Yes by William Ury.  IBB needs to be adapted for education, and those adaptations are well represented in the practice of leaders who gather in the Teacher Union Reform Network.
Best of all, Vermont districts and unions do not have to go it alone.  The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) provides free support and training to teams of local leaders who want to create a negotiation process that speaks to the benefit of students.  In the Washington Central Supervisory Union we are using FMCS mediators to reform our process.  While the work is in its infancy, the early results have been a revelation to participants.
In a traditional adversarial negotiation, the two sides exchange proposals.  They take positions and use whatever power or persuasion they can muster to win for their position.  The result is massively time consuming and ritualistic, burning up thousands of hours of time of teachers, school board members and administrators, time which would be better spent thinking about students.  The process inevitably wends itself to impasse, when the two sides admit that they can’t get any further.  With extremely rare exceptions, it then proceeds to mediation and fact finding.  Generally, private mediators are used at this phase, at a cost of thousands of dollars both to the board and the union.  In addition, mediation and fact finding can generate tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills for boards, and huge amounts of work for VT-NEA professional staff. 
In worst cases, the two sides resort to their nuclear options; boards impose and unions strike.
And the result?  Usually a handful of contract language tweaks and a little bit of new money on the salary schedule.   These tweaks are often fraught with unintended consequences that then need to be fought over in subsequent negotiations.  In my experience positional bargaining is an expensive and wasteful way to preserve the status quo.
What does the alternative look like?  In Washington Central we contacted FMCS, who provided a team of skilled and experienced Federal mediators to train the board and the union together in the methods of Interest Based Bargaining .  Our training took a full Saturday.  A mediator attends each session to advise both teams and keep the process on track.  There is quite a learning curve, as the deeply ingrained habits of mind and practice of veteran negotiators have to be replaced by new, unfamiliar ways of doing business.
In a typical session now, using IBB, the work looks like this:  the sides identify an issue they want to talk about and define the problem to be solved.   Then participants identify their underlying interests and determine which interests are shared by both teachers and board.  So far, we have discovered that the two sides share most interests.
The next step is mutual brain storming of options to resolve the issue.  People are encouraged to contribute anything they think of at this stage, without criticism.  Sometimes an option which at first glance looks impractical contains a kernel of something helpful.  Only when the collective creativity of the team is exhausted is the list of options judged by a set of mutually agreed upon standards.  There are a couple of ways to do this.
The way we chose is a three part filter:
  • Is it feasible?  For example an option which is illegal is not feasible.  Therefore we do not apply the second test.
  • Is it beneficial? Does it help solve the problem?  For example, a committee to further study the problem may not, in the absence of other action, be beneficial enough to become part of the contract.  But if an option passes this test, we move to the third one.
  • Is it acceptable?  This test asks whether the option under consideration violates any of the interests identified prior to the brainstorming of options.
An option which passes through all three of these filters can become the basis of a tentative agreement.  A pair of negotiators from each side would then meet independently to draft contract language.
In many cases, the two sides simply agree that the collective bargaining agreement is the wrong tool to resolve the issue.  This is quite normal – in an adversarial proceeding each side can arrive with a list of 20 or more positions, most of which never make it into the contract.  Mutual agreement to exclude an issue is a far more efficient and civilized way to get to the same result.
As I said before, this process has been a revelation for the veteran negotiators in the room.  One team member likened the old positional bargaining to “the two sides shouting at each other through a spokesperson.”  Our new process has a group of sensible people from a variety of backgrounds working together to solve problems.  The anger and rancor of the old process has been replaced by mutual respect, and the discovery that boards and teachers share most interests.
I am optimistic that the agreements that result from our IBB process will be superior to our traditional process.  After all, a proposal in positional bargaining is simply an option attached to a set of interests.  There is no guarantee that it is the best possible option, and positional bargaining provides very little space for the consideration of alternatives.  A collective bargaining agreement is a means of creating local education policy.  A better process is in the interest of great public policy.
Again, our process is in its infancy, and I write this with some trepidation.  It may be that we reach a point, perhaps on economic issues, where positional bargaining is the correct tool, and we revert to that process.  This would be normal, and it is the practice in many negotiations across the country.  Nonetheless, I am confident that if we reach impasse having given IBB our best shot, the scale of the remaining disagreements will be greatly reduced, and the climate of our talks will allow a more civil result.
My other concern is sustainability: will this process outlast this particular set of leaders and this particular negotiation?  The answer here has three parts.  The first is how successful this particular group is in arriving at a new agreement.  The more successful we are, the more sustainable the process.
The second is whether this process then becomes a template for other supervisory unions, and spreads across Vermont.  If IBB becomes a cultural norm and an expectation in Vermont, sustainability becomes moot.  This is part of the reason I am writing even as the result hangs in the balance.  We need to do more of this work.   I am committed to this vision.
Finally, while we can count on the continued support of the Federal government through the free services of FMCS, what supports will our state leaders provide those of us trying to reform process for the sake of great student learning?  Or will our state government get distracted in desultory and destructive tinkering with collective bargaining laws, legalistic games that are irrelevant to grassroots reforms available to every community?
We do not need to change collective bargaining laws to use IBB and the FMCS.  What is required is that teachers and their unions join with their communities, turn away from the mutually assured destruction of business-as-usual, and find reasons to do that business in new and better ways.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Education Worker Wordle

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

VT Filmmaker’s Wisconsin Rising Needs Support

Wisconsin Rising tells the story of how Wisconsin became a testing ground for the nation in a political environment where corporations have greater and greater clout and ordinary citizens are losing their ability to obtain redress. At a time when millions of families are feeling the crush of debt and joblessness, and while large corporations are seeing record profits, Badger State residents are demonstrating the strength that comes from a shared sense of identity and pride, and that these bonds can shake even the most powerful political machines.

This film will be a testimony to the value of people rising up in the face of injustice and corporate greed. Burlington filmmaker needs your support now in order to get the film fully financed, and she needs less than $4,000 by Saturday to do it.  Click here to donate and learn more.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Stunned Silence

This document makes radical demands.  One can go through it and nod one's head and say OK, the union needs to do this, check, and ED has to do that, no problem....OMG they want me to do WHAT?  That's where the stunned silence kicks in. It reads like a package deal.  True, the document can be "otherwise manipulated"  or cherry picked so as to leave the "OMG" out.  We're all reformers as long as its the other guy doing the reforming.
For example a board member on the negotiating team distrusts teachers' self evaluation.  She thinks we're very self serving.  PARS?  That would blow her mind - giving up control.  But she'd have no problem with the union giving up security in the ways suggested by "Transforming Teaching."
There is a worry that some folks are planning to take what the CETT has put forward and claim it as their own.  I'm not sure I see a problem here.  I get mentoring from time to time by a brilliant Marxist labor organizer who always reminds me that it is the cause that matters in organizing, not my individual ego.  This thing she taught me allows me to be a lot more effective.  So if one's ideas get stolen en masse and actually implemented, I'd count it as a success - as long as they are not too cherry picked or "otherwise manipulated."
The thing I worry about is that all this stunned silence will make this initiative go the way of Bob Chase's "New Unionism."  In a 1997 NEA Higher Education Journal interview, Chase said:
"New Unionism means being as strong an advocate for the professional side of the education equation as we have been for the economic and social well-being of our membership, the other side of the equation.
I’m not saying that we should, in any way, back away from the moral responsibilities as a union to provide for the economic well-being of our members. But I am saying that there is another whole area of our members’ well-being—the professional side—that we must be involved in.
If we take the best from traditional industrial unionism and the best from traditional craft unionism, as well as the best from organizational management gurus, and meld all these into a philosophical underpinning for what our union should be, I think that we would be stepping forward and moving in a direction that is absolutely essential if we are to remain relevant. 
This means that those of us who have held beliefs that are more in line with traditional unionism must rethink some of that and broaden our scope and vision about the work of the NEA.
This is tough work, and there’s no blueprint for how we go about doing this. But unless we can make inroads here—whether it’s K-12 or higher education—our importance to the future of education will be minimal, and the needs of our members, or potential members, will go unmet."
That was 15 years ago.  The more things change the more things remain the same.  Well now there is a blueprint in a sense.  The big question is will it make any difference.  The reason I keep writing about “Transforming Teaching” (like a damn fool) and trying to keep it alive is my hope that educators will emerge from their stunned silence and start talking about this thing.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Why I Embrace "Transforming Teaching"

When my son was about 14 he got involved with the Vermont Workers Center, which is a statewide consortium of labor and human rights groups.  The director of VWC put him on the statewide steering committee.  Ben needed a ride to the steering committee meetings.  So I ended up on the steering committee too.  There I sat with all these union activists, AFL-CIO/Teamsters/AFT (and yes NEA) leaders.  I was just a rank and file NEA member.  I just paid my dues and let others do the work.  When a contract got negotiated I really didn't understand it.  I'd just vote for it because the negotiator told me to.
Sitting with the VWC folks (whose general Bernie-style socialist politics I shared) I came to feel I had no street cred with all these awesome leaders.  So I volunteered to become the building rep for my school and started doing the trainings and all the nuts and bolts work of organizing, member servicing and negotiations.  Negotiations were particularly formidable task, as the scenario in Vermont is very complex and technical.  The UD snookered me into trying to propose a "lift up and set down" of our single salary schedule.  In retrospect I was so ignorant that I made a fool of myself in failure, but I learned a ton about salary schedules (and adversarial industrial style pattern bargaining.)
The rest is history.  When the local needed a president, I became the president.  When the Upper Valley needed an area director, I was appointed then elected to the VT-NEA board.
My point in telling this story is that my path to state level NEA leadership was from OUTSIDE the NEA.  I came to union work not because of self interest in salary and benefits, or the legal protections ("insurance") it afforded, but because of a belief that unions themselves, both public and private sector, are a fundamental public good - I'm 3rd generation union.  They built the middle class in America.  I got involved in the scut work of teacher unionism out of conviction that I have a responsibility to build my union as an expression of my political and social values.  I spent many years laboring in the vineyards so to speak.
Now, when I speak to other labor leaders, there is a camaraderie born of shared experience.  I have street cred.  When I advocate on the board, or with professional staff for professional (which is the CETT frame) or social justice (which is my home) unionism, I do so with authority, because these people know that I am one of them by virtue of the hundreds and hundreds of hours of volunteer work that I have performed in solidarity with my brother and sister co-unionists, both in the NEA and in the wider movement in general.
So when I advocate for the complex of ideas that we call "guilds" at the Center for Teaching Quality, and we call “professional unionism” in the Teacher Union Reform Network, I am not just blowing smoke.  I actually have my hands on some of the levers that can move these ideas, and I am yanking on these levers with all my might.
The thing that motivates me is that having done all this work, and having had a lot of opportunities to learn both within NEA and the wider labor movement, I understand both the strengths and the weaknesses of my union.  There are corrupting structural forces in NEA and they represent a real and present threat to both my union and all other unions.  Union reform means to me not that my union is bad and needs to be "reformed" in the "reform school" sense (i.e. punished), but that by embracing the very best thinking and practice the NEA can reach its potential.  Mark Simon, former president of the Montgomery Co. MD NEA affiliate, expressed this beautifully: "Teacher Unions have a responsibility to advocate not just in the narrow self-interest of their dues paying members, but in the public interest, from a teacher’s perspective.”
There's an irony here.  In my experience, the path to moving beyond the bread and butter issues of industrial frame unionism to a broader and more powerful unionism that acts consistently in the public interest runs through deep engagement in the tasks of industrial frame unionism.  We can't eschew these tasks - we have to embrace them, understand them, and use them to build our power for change.  I worry a great deal that in embracing any aspect of industrial unionism I am reinforcing the stodginess and structural corruption of the very thing I value as fundamental public good.  But doing so gives me the access I need to promote a change agenda.
So to me it’s not an either/or thing; it's both/and.  It's not unions or guilds, its unions AND guilds, or as I prefer to think, industrial, professional AND social justice unionism.  It is an infinitely more powerful union capable of "advocating in the public interest from a teacher's perspective."
The NEA Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching  report Transforming Teaching is a tool that can help move this forward.  There is a powerful message embedded in the report: accomplished teachers need to step up to union leadership on both the local and national level.  We have to be willing to get our hands dirty in the messy business of labor organizing so that we can get those dirty hands on the levers of power to move the union reform agenda forward.
I worry that already this document is being studiously ignored.  It is being ignored because it calls on the leadership of the union to change, and because it demands that accomplished teachers stop throwing darts at their unions from the outside, roll up their sleeves and get involved.  It makes demands on people.  There are plenty of reasons for the forces of comfortable complacency to walk away from these recommendations.  It is incumbent on those of us who value our unions, and the greater aspirations of working people that they could represent, to demand that people pay attention.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Why Did I Create a Page for The Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Freedom From Want - Norman Rockwell

My friend, colleague, and fellow Teaching Ambassador  Elaine Romero posted her resolution on Facebook this morning:  “2012 is here! I am going to learn more about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and tie them to my work. (They keep crossing my path)!”
They crossed my path, too.  On December 10, I wrote “How Things Have Changed in Two Years.”  The occasion was the Vermont Human Rights Day Conference.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on December 10, 1948. For this reason people throughout the world have chosen to celebrate this date as Human Rights Day.  There were several references at the conference to the UDHR.  I made a mental note to check it out someday.  This morning, thanks to Elaine, I did.  Doing so deepened my understanding and appreciation of the conference, and I resolve to begin framing issues with reference to this document.
Some highlights for me:
Article 23.
(1)    Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2)    Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3)    Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4)    Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
Article 24.
    Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
Don’t these go together well?  Article 23 (4) provides the mechanism for the realization of the vision – and is the reason this blog exists.  Since (and before) 1947 the United States has thrown up all manner of creative roadblocks to thwart workers’ rights “to form and to join trade unions.”  We’ve recently seen some new and clever iterations in Wisconsin, Ohio, Alabama, and other states.
Article 25.
(1)    Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
Economic rights are addressed by Article 25.  A belief in “freedom from want”  drives us in the Health Care is a Human Right campaign, the effort to make Vermont the first state in the nation to adopt a single payer system for health care.
Article 26.
(1)    Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2)    Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
26(2) is particularly interesting with regard to the current wave of education reform (some say “deform”) in the United States.  It sets forth a broad vision for education and its purpose – a purpose that cannot be measured by tests, but only by the quality of action that is undertaken by a nation’s citizens.  Success in education can be measured by the degree a nation respects the human rights set forth in the UDHR.  How does the US measure up?
The UDHR was drafted in 1947 by the UN Commission on Human Rights chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt.  Two major treaties emerged, the "International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights" and the "International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights."  Together with the UDHR these are considered the “International Bill of Rights.”
I wanted to find out how the US dealt with the “International Bill of Rights.”  I consulted the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute's web site and discovered the following:
  • "....President Carter has signed the "International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights" for the U.S., but the U.S. government and the people of the United States have not yet generated the political will necessary to ratify this Covenant
  • .....the U.S. has consistently attached reservations to the human rights treaties that it has ratified. These reservations have evoked criticism from many non-governmental organizations that argue they limit the legal impact of the treaties in the United States
  • ....every country in the world -- except the U.S. and Somalia -- has ratified the 'Convention on the Rights of the Child.'"
Evidently the United States appreciates political rights, especially when they can be used to bash opponents in propaganda contests - and we like it even better when those rights are toothless concerning American behavior.  Economic rights?  Not so much.  Somalia?  What sort of company is that for us to keep?
This to me is far more of an indictment of our education system and our nation than any test can measure.  If you don’t get the fundamental purpose of education right to begin with, if you make it exclusively about readin’ ritin’ and ‘rithmetic, about what sort of job you can get, about the suitability of graduates for employment, etc. you’ve lost your soul before leaving the gate.
A nation that fails to teach its people to care….has it taught them anything at all?