Op-ed in Rutland Herald and Burlington Free Press.
By James Haslam
The Colchester teachers strike was Vermont’s largest and longest strike in recent memory, a big-impact event that provoked wide-ranging discussion all over the state. After taking time to talk and think about this with many different people, I want to share some things I’ve learned.
One thing that was apparent in Colchester was that teachers are respected and valued for their important work with students. What was less widely understood was that the teachers’ union directly contributes to the professionalism and high quality of the work force. The teachers’ union has made it possible for people to choose this profession because it promises a stable, though modest, career. And though strikes are dramatic episodes, the union works year after year to provide good working environments for teachers which are, after all, the learning environments for their students.
Almost every single public school in Vermont has a teachers’ union (all but one are local affiliates of the Vermont-National Education Association). There are almost 200 separate contracts negotiated by teachers. Since these are generally multiyear contracts, probably about one-third, or 70, are negotiated each year. The labor relations law for teachers has been on the books since 1969, so it’s safe to say that perhaps 2,500 contracts have been negotiated in Vermont with only about 20 of those negotiations ending in a strike. That tells me the law works well and results in negotiated settlements — without a strike — 99 percent of the time.
It’s clear that strikes are hard. They are hard on the workers, their employer and also the “clients,” which in the case of a teachers’ strike are students and their parents. But they are a legal, peaceful and reliable way of settling differences. In terms of disruption, a teachers’ strike doesn’t eliminate teaching days for students, but just delays them. The reports I’ve heard about returning Colchester teachers is that the re-entry with students was very successful and calm. Everyone got right back to the job of teaching and learning. Students are curious, and may learn something about legal ways that adults resolve their differences; a much better lesson than they “learn” about war, violence, and terrorism from the news every day.
The Vermont labor relations law for teachers lays out a long and formal process for contract negotiations. Every step has to be followed in a time line, including good faith bargaining, mediation and fact finding. The whole idea of the law is to help the school board and the teachers put forward their legitimate concerns, be treated with respect by the other side, and bargain back and forth until an acceptable compromise is reached. The very last step in the law allows the school board to impose its last offer on the teachers, and at the same time, allows the teachers to go on strike. This is in the law to balance out the power between the two parties. Without it, there are two bad choices: Either the negotiations go on and never end, or one side has unequal power over the other. Strikes are challenging, but they are a reliable means to create compromise; a very democratic method.
The sticking point in most contract fights is health care. Colchester teachers have paid 20 percent of their premiums for the last 10 years — significantly more than other school employees in Vermont — but the school board wanted to shift even more cost to teachers. This increase would have wiped out any raise in wages. The strike allowed them to work out an acceptable compromise. Without a union, workers have no equality with the employer, and health care costs just continue to pile up on the workers. The health care crisis is not solved by this approach. Until Vermont finally adopts a universal, publicly financed health care system, the struggle we saw in Colchester will be repeated over and over again.
James Haslam is director of the Vermont Workers’ Center.