Battle over teachers' bargaining rights led to this legislative session's most raucous debate

Sunday, December 25, 2011 at 8:05pm

The debate over repealing collective bargaining for public school teachers was the most contentious of this year’s state legislative session, with opponents rallying at the Capitol in raucous demonstrations like those that put the national spotlight on Wisconsin.

It took two tie-breaking votes from House Speaker Beth Harwell before Tennessee Republicans succeeded in stripping the teachers’ union of most of its power. The Tennessee Education Association urged Gov. Bill Haslam to veto the bill. Even though he said it wasn’t one of his priorities for education reform, Haslam signed the bill into law.

The legislature repealed the collective bargaining law enacted in 1978. That gave teachers the right to form unions and negotiate contracts with school boards. The new law calls for school boards to hold so-called collaborations with teachers on pay and benefits. But no agreements are required, and school boards can impose whatever terms they wish on teachers.

Republicans also passed bills to unseat TEA representatives from the teachers’ pension-governing board and to give school boards the right to end automatic paycheck withdrawals for membership dues — a potentially crippling blow to the union.

Republicans hailed it as a historic opportunity for education reform, but Democrats accused the state GOP of demonizing public school teachers.

“We have dealt with a lot of bad bills regarding teachers this session, but this may be the worst,” Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said after the Senate voted 18-14 to repeal collective bargaining by teachers. “Teachers were deliberately ignored and deliberately targeted by the sponsors and supporters of this legislation.”

But Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said, “Union contracts have hamstrung our local school boards for too long. More than a year ago, our state raced to the top and planted our flag as a beacon for education reform in the nation, but our journey is not over.”

One of the bill’s sponsors — Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Brentwood — said: “In 1978 the General Assembly gave a monopoly to one government union and allowed that union to strangle the hope of education reform in this state. This bill rectifies that mistake and gives power back to locally elected school boards and teachers. The passage of this measure is necessary if we mean to continue on the path of education reform we have embarked upon.”

“We have a historic opportunity to make this session of the General Assembly a landmark for the cause of reform,” Johnson said. “This bill creates a collaborative environment between teachers and their local board, which will ultimately result in putting a quality teacher in every classroom.”

Republicans denied they were trying to bust the teachers’ union to dry up a source of campaign cash for Democrats. That was the contention of the Tennessee Education Association, a traditionally ally of Democrats in the legislature.

“All of these bills are about one thing: political payback,” said Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere. “None of this legislation is going to raise a single test score or improve a single child’s education. A teacher’s work environment is a child’s learning environment, and both get worse every time one of these bills passes.”

Under pressure from teachers back home, even some Republicans agreed with Democrats. More moderate Republicans in the House forced the legislature to back away from the original legislation, which took an even harder line against the teachers’ union.

“I can tell you, teachers are scared,” Rep. David Shephard, R-Dickson, said during the House floor debate. “They’re confused and they’re scared, and they’re hurt.”

Haslam and Harwell tried to forge a compromise in which the TEA could continue to negotiate with school boards over base pay and benefits, but not certain incentive compensation plans or personnel decisions such as school assignments, transfers and layoffs. But that was unacceptable to Senate Republicans.

The Tea Party sent an “emergency alert” urging its supporters to contact lawmakers who were waffling on the legislation. “We need to ‘wear them out’ now!” the alert said. At the top of the list was Harwell, even though she twice saved the bill from defeat by casting the tie-breaking vote in committee meetings.

Both houses eventually agreed on the “collaborative conferencing” approach, which at least gives the appearance that school boards are taking the wishes of teachers into account. The House voted 59-39 for the final bill.

Since the session ended, the TEA has suffered membership losses — perhaps as much as 10 percent, according to union lobbyist Jerry Winters. With the union so weakened by the legislature, many teachers no longer see belonging to the TEA as important.

“The attack the legislature launched on teachers didn’t make it easy for us,” Winters said.



Five Top stories in 2011

Tort reform: In Gov. Bill Haslam’s major legislative achievement of the year, lawmakers capped jury awards and imposed other new restrictions on lawsuits for injuries and deaths caused by negligence or wrongful actions.

Photo ID: The legislature’s new Republican majority adopted a law requiring photo ID for voters beginning in next year’s elections, claiming it’s needed to stop voter fraud. But Democrats contended it was part of a national GOP campaign to suppress the votes of the poor and elderly.

Guns and Bars 2: State Rep. Curry Todd, champion of the state’s guns-in-bars law, was charged with driving drunk with a loaded handgun in a holster in his SUV. Police say Todd was swerving at 60 mph toward Hillsboro Village when he was stopped. He apologized and resigned his position as chairman of the House State and Local Government Committee.

Harwell: Despite opposition from the Tea Party and conservative critics who said she was too moderate, Rep. Beth Harwell became the first woman elected speaker of the state House. “It’s an exciting opportunity,” the typically understated Harwell said of her new role as feminist champion. “My 16-year-old daughter for the first time told me I was cool. So there you go.”

Discrimination: The legislature invalidated Nashville’s ordinance barring gay discrimination by companies doing business with Metro. Republicans maintained the ordinance would cause confusion with businesses and hurt the economy. Gay rights activists then joined Metro Council members in suing the legislature to overturn the state law. The case is pending.    

18 Comments on this post:

By: Moonglow1 on 12/26/11 at 8:07

Moonglow1: breaking the unions also paves the way for charter schools which enrich their owners while ripping off taxpayers since taxpayers finance them. I hope the left leaning media exposes Haslam like they did with Walker in WI. These Tea Nuts need to be ousted.

By: oyharward on 12/26/11 at 10:25


Often, educators teach “inappropriate” choices

While education is to teach/offer people a choice in making the “right” selection(s) in life, quite often within today’s radical, liberal/progressive viewpoints, educators are teaching (y)our children many “inappropriate” choices.- Oscar Y. Harward

By: Radix on 12/26/11 at 12:23

So Moonglow, you still think Charter Schools are for profit organizations? Put down the bong and get a clue.

By: Radix on 12/26/11 at 12:32

The left wants to control of education because they want to teach your kids what to think instead of how to think. Then they want to make it harder for you to escape government school by establishing monopolies and making it hard for economically disadvantaged kids to seek alternatives to failing or indoctrinating schools. To them education is really indoctrination. You've probably seen that bumper sticker that says "Its about Education"? That is progressive code for 'we need to control and brainwash kids while they're young to advance our political cause' and sure enough we are seeing that now with the entitlement-driven Occupy movement and class warfare narrative.

That said, here's hoping that Tennessee uses this to build a model education system as it should be, with sound fundamentals, with merit-based pay and promotion. If you're a teacher for the wrong reason, your days are numbered.

By: pswindle on 12/26/11 at 12:44

This last year in the Legislaive Session, TN was set back many years in development. The people of TN has to bow-down to a few lawmakers that have no idea what is best for TN. There was no reason to take collective bargaining away from teachers. I still can't think of a valid reason except the GOP Governors got together and tried to weaken the Demociataci party in any way that they could. I applaud the voters of WI and Ohio for taking a stand to oust the right-wing dictators.
The worse of laws was the Voter ID bill. TN ihas become a state without a heart. Thanks to the Legislative Branch and to Gov. Haslam. He signed everything that came to him, and he even signed bils to protect he and his family and to hide their wealth and their many connnections.

By: Radix on 12/26/11 at 1:10

PSwindle does this mean you will be leaving? One can hope for a fewer socialist voters wasting time on completely unsustainable ideas. Legal voting? Outrageous! Merit pay for teachers? Sacre Bleu! I'd say your best bet is New York at this point. You wouldn't like Wisconsin or Ohio with their improving economies and all.

I am proud TN has joined the reformers!! Now we can have great pay for great teachers. Just watch our economy take off now.

By: pswindle on 12/26/11 at 4:40

TN is growing and thanks to Gov. Bredesen and his policies. What has Haslam done? You have no ideas what you are saying about Collective Bargaining.and Voter ID. Have you ever been a teacher or have you tried to vote and was turned away? Go talk to some people in Murfreesboro and Chattanooga to name a few. WI and Ohio have are gained at all under the new dictators.

By: RustyACE on 12/27/11 at 7:47

Dear Jeff,

You have been very consistent with your stories this year and I give you the Most Progressive Liberal Reporter at The Nashville City Paper Award of 2011.

It seems that the Teacher's Union could force members to pay dues. If a union is such a good thing, then they can still exist with less money. If they are truly a good thing for teachers, then teachers will willingly give their hard earned money to them to advocate for them. If teachers are leaving the union in "droves", this must not have been the case.

Government workers can't unionize because we the citizens have hired you to teach our society's children. When you strike, you aren't striking against some Fat Rich Cat who worked hard to set up a company, but against the moms and dads of those little faces that you have chosen as your career to teach. The union is using our children as a ruse to extort more and more pay from us via the government.

If Occupy Nashville is upset about how expensive schools are, they simply need to complain to the universities to charge less tuition. They should be on a supply and demand cycle like everyone else, but schools get nearly unlimited access to funds from the state and have no naturally occurring systems in place to control the extreme hikes in tuition over the years.

You see, when a teacher strikes, it goes against the very heart and soul of why a teacher went into the profession to be a teacher.

If you don't like the pay or benefits that you receive as a government worker, then you have a choice, work for somewhere else that does pay the salary and benefits that you deserve for the level of ability that you can teach children. The problem though is that for years we (Sensible Folks like the Republicans) have been trying to set up a system that rewards excellent teachers, and encourages other teachers to seek new types of gainful employment. Evidently the idea to hold a teacher personally accountable for their results goes against everything the union stands for.

We hold Doctors and Nurses accountable for the results that they deliver? We trust them with the most precious thing that exists as well.

The main point of your article is that it's the Repubs vs Dems and had it been different, then the union would have won out. It's bigger than that.

We trust you Jeff, as a news reporter, to dig to the real story and present the facts and let the readers decide for themselves, but you write news stories as if they were opinion pieces and op-ed stories.

You should start each story, "Hi, I'm Jeff Woods, and I'm a liberal progressive democrat, and I'm about to tell you a story that is based solely upon my opinion with a little facts stirred in to give it the appearance of a news story, but I have a progressive liberal agenda, so here goes...", then at least the reader would be fully informed about the slant of your writing.

A union can be a good thing, but it can also enslave a city. The latter has been happening since 1978, and we're free, we're free, thank God, we're free at last.

I'm a proud parent of two children that attended Metro Public Schools, and due to the amazing lack of success that was obtained by my children, I chose to get extra work and work 7 days a week to send my children to Private Schools. I have personally been funding Metro Schools via tax payments since 1985.

Madison, TN

By: pswindle on 12/27/11 at 12:01

Teachers are not forced to join a union. It is by choice, but most do join. You have no idea what the unions have done for both students and teachers. Before unions the class sizes could be 40 students or more, and that was in grade school. There was no P.E. This is just a couple of things that the union helped with. Until you know the facts, you do not know the meaning of "free at last."

By: JeffF on 12/27/11 at 11:01

" the class sizes could be 40 students "

"Could be"?? That is an awful open ended view of the past. Class sizes could have been 1,000. they could have been 3. Hell they could have been 1.2342323875 as well. How does one give credit to anyone or anything for preventing "could have been"? Might as will have said the union prevented all kids from being eaten by alligators since it could have happened. Conversely using Schrodinger's Cat we could say all the kids prior to unionization was locked in a box and were never seen again.

Please don't use quantum theory in a political argument. All we have right now are measurements and those measurements say the education system went in the crapper sometime after the unions were allowed to bargain over the management wishes of taxpayers and parents.

By: pswindle on 12/27/11 at 11:18

I should have said that is was 40+ students. All you can do is play on words. .

By: JeffF on 12/27/11 at 11:48

I was in Tennessee public classrooms prior to 1978 and I can honestly say, that there is no reasonableness to the statement that there were 40 person class sizes. To state that unions eliminated a problem that did not exist is equivalent to the statements the local news outlets make that the arena or the old convention center eliminated peep shows on lower Broadway 5-10 years before they were built or that the Obama administration "saved" 200,000 jobs while the unemployment rate continued rising.

By: djarrell on 12/28/11 at 7:30


I can NOT teach students who are NOT in school.

The same students miss far too many days every year and every year.

The amount of paperwork and the number of required steps is ridiculous, and the parents know the tricks to beat the system and halt the process.

Truancy = lower test scores = dropouts.

Get the legislature & courts to tighten up truancy procedures.

By: govskeptic on 12/28/11 at 8:30

The TEA as well as the national union have lied to the press and
public for to many years to count as to how they have helped
education, yet down played the total compensation and benefits
they have muscled out of the taxpayers for "Total" teacher compensation!
Truth to their agenda is their biggest fear with the voters!

Pswindle must have attended one of those olden day schools where
several grades were within the same classroom to get to 40 students.
Such false claims and or one extreme example is what the press has
dwelled on for oh so many years it's disgusting! "It's for the children"
has become the most over used falsehood that is now being challenged.

By: spooky24 on 12/28/11 at 11:33

I can agree that Jeff has done his job well in his news stories and let the facts be told before any opinion.
As I see it parent's own unaccountability for the action of their children is the most important issue. As quoted: "can NOT teach students who are NOT in school" Looking at local juvenile crime statistics everyday in metro gives full indication that getting the kids in the schools far outweighs lingering feeling about the usefulness of unions.
Metro Police simply don't have the manpower to conduct truancy sweeps everyday and the last such sweep by flex officers resulted in dozens of arrest in which the parents(or guardian) had no idea the child wasn't in school.


By: JeffF on 12/28/11 at 2:20

I am going to guess that swindle is in his early 20s and thinks all readers of the NCP are in their early 20s as well. Making sweeping statements that teacher unions took away 40+ kid elementary classrooms and brought about PE is preposterous when there are so many of us who were actually alive and in schools during this period that saw no such thing.

Young people (on both sides) get caught up in absolutes and grow out of them once they realize the childhood folly of their belief structure. Once they realize that exaggerating to win a point makes them look childish they soon backtrack enough to realize most of their philosophy was wrong from the beginning.

Case in point, there are no doubt a lot of formerly young PR and meeting planning people in Nashville who regret the "30,000 new jobs" absurdity they were yelling a couple of years ago.

By: acluu on 12/28/11 at 5:54

We won, ya'll lost, now have a nice comfy ride in the back of the bus !

By: Loner on 12/30/11 at 7:56

Tennessee is already near the bottom in test that the system is a scab-labor operation, test scores may go through the floor into the basement. Ignorance is worn like a badges of honor in the Volunteer State.

When voters elect anti-intellectual Jesus freaks to elected office, this is the kind of insanity that results....Idiots for Jesus have hijacked the TN state legislature and the Governor's mansion....we now know that Jesus, the Christ, hated unions and loathed public education...he packed a weapon at all times too....just ask these idiots in the state house....they'll tell you all about how Christ was a tea party dude.