December 15, 2017

Lawmakers call for teacher strike ban

Burlington Schools Superintendent Yaw Obeng answers reporters questions following successful mediations bringing a close to a teachers strike. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

Burlington Schools Superintendent Yaw Obeng answers reporters questions following successful mediations bringing a close to a teachers strike. Photo by Morgan True/VTDigger

Bill would also prevent boards from imposing working conditions

By Morgan True

For VTDigger

In the wake of a four-day Burlington School District teachers strike that ended Tuesday night, two Republican lawmakers are calling for the Legislature to reconsider a proposal that would do away with a school board’s ability to impose working conditions on teachers, as well as a teacher union’s ability strike in response.

Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, says that strikes create animosity in the community.

“It creates division,” Wright said. “It disrupts families, and it leaves scars behind in the community in its aftermath. We see that every time there’s a strike.”

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said Burlington’s teacher strike is a harbinger of what’s to come around the state, pointing to negotiations in South Burlington that are teetering on the edge of a strike. The school board there has imposed contract terms on the teachers.

Wright said if the state took away the “nuclear option” of strikes and impositions, teacher contract negotiations would be less adversarial.

Though a Sunday rally in City Hall Park to support teachers was positive and peaceful, the Burlington Police Department has said it received reports of picketing teachers being harassed by passing drivers.

The windows of two homes displaying green “Support our Teachers” lawn signs were shot with what police believe was an air gun over the weekend. Deputy Chief Shawn Burke said police are investigating whether the vandalism was motivated by the teacher strike.

“There is no place for any type of bullying or harassment in our community,” Burlington School District Superintendent Yaw Obeng said.

Wright’s bill banning strikes and impositions failed by two votes in the House in 2015, but languished in committee last year. Now, Benning said he will introduce a similar bill in the Senate.

The difference between Wright’s previous legislation, and the identical bills the two lawmakers say they will introduce in the coming session, is that the new version would require negotiations to take place in public, unless both sides agree to keep the process secret.

Such a provision would force school boards and unions to make reasonable offers at the outset, or face an angry public, thereby increasing the odds of a quick and amicable resolution, Benning said.

Darren Allen, a spokesman for the Vermont NEA, said the proposal is unnecessary. In Vermont’s 50 years of collective bargaining for teacher contracts at the local level, roughly 5,000 contracts have settled with only two dozen impositions and roughly the same number of strikes, Allen said.

“What a strike does is ensure that there will be a settlement, that a contract will be reached,” Allen said.

That’s the problem with Wright and Benning’s proposal, said Sen. Chris Pearson, P-Chittenden. “There has to be an off ramp. Otherwise each side might want negotiations to continue on in perpetuity. That doesn’t seem wise,” Pearson said.

Benning said their proposal calls for a study committee to answer what happens when two sides can’t find resolution. Still, that’s putting “the cart before the horse,” Pearson said.

Rep. Brian Cina, P-Burlington, said he agreed with Wright and Benning that the current model is too adversarial, pitting school board’s and taxpayers against teachers, which creates an unhealthy dynamic.

“The way collective bargaining is set up now, both sides use manipulative tactics. It’s structured to be a war,” said Cina, who served on the Burlington School Board prior to being elected to the House last year.

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