What to Remember When Negotiating a Teachers Union Contract

Dear Rick & Rebecca: I am the Director of Human Resources in a mid-size suburban school district. One of my chief responsibilities is to be the lead negotiator for the district when working with all 7 of our bargaining units. This represents about 95% of our staff from clerical staff to maintenance staff to teachers and administrators.

Recently, the Teachers Union initiated a vote of “no confidence” for me and the Superintendent because we could not settle on a fair contract. It really came down to two items that come up in every single contract negotiation: health insurance premiums and salary.

From the district’s standpoint, we were looking for some health insurance contributions and a three-year contract with pay increases of 2%/3%/3% increases for each member no matter what salary step each teacher was on. In exchange, we were willing to not make the teachers report in August for 4 staff development days, but shave that down to just 1 day in September before the students arrive. We were also willing to offer a retirement incentive which would assist the district with a cost savings.

We crunched the numbers again and again and realized that this was all that the district (taxpayers, too, of course) could afford without increasing taxes to a percentage that would most likely have our budget fail. But the Teacher’s Union will not budge from their requested pay increases or entertain contributing anything towards their health insurance.

I am kind and caring to the negotiation teams, never raising my voice or letting them see me sweat. I try to work through any hard feelings, but everything just comes down to what we can afford and what we can’t afford. Health insurance continues to climb and we are stuck without any options. Costs are often out of our control.

So the Teacher’s Union carried out a “vote of no confidence” and hate us because we can’t give them more.

While our school board realizes that we cannot provide anything more to the teachers, the morale among the staff is terrible. The conflict keeps me up at night. Do you have any insights into how I might better deal with these negotiation frustrations?–Sincerely, “No Confidence” Director of Human Resources

Dear “No Confidence” Director of Human Resources:

It sounds like you are self-reflective about all that is happening with your negotiations and in your district. Money is money. And money naturally evokes emotions on both sides of the negotiation table. The problem is that money can get in the way of relationships. We all want to be paid well and when we are better compensated, we feel more appreciated. Sure, money doesn’t drive all of the components of motivating staff, but let’s be serious: it doesn’t hurt!

Here’s what we like about your letter to us: You are kind, caring, understanding, and never let anyone see you sweat. See, the problem isn’t you. It’s what you have to do. The board supports you. You have empirical facts that show what you can and cannot afford.

You can’t change what the union will do to you to get you to budge. Nor can you make them like you. What they will respect, though, even if they don’t articulate it, ever, is that you recognize that it isn’t you or them: It’s the structure of governance and financial support that schools are given (or not given).

While our advice to you will sound incredibly basic, it will fare true for everyone feeling your same frustrations: Continue to be nice and caring. Be being the leader that we know you are. Keep your cool. Have greater structural discussions with your bargaining units. We would like to recommend you read, Collective Bargaining in Education: Negotiating Change in Today’s Schools by Hannaway & Rotherham.

Keep reminding yourself that it isn’t you; it’s the structure. It’s the system. Then, make every effort to shop around for new health care providers. You should also consider resignation incentives, half salary step concessions, furloughs, etc. There are a number of ways to alleviate the structure that is suffocating you.

Visit the schools. Keep trying to energize your staff each day. If your budget woes lead you to making personnel cuts in the end, stay true to yourself and keep continuing to treat people wonderfully. While failed negotiations might keep you up at night and weigh on your heavy heart, knowing that you did not falter from who you are and how you should treat people will, maybe, help you to get some sleep at night. Stay strong and caring.

Good luck to you and stay in touch to let us know how things are going.–R&R

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If you would like to share a challenge–or an additional good solution–send an e-mail to drjetter1@gmail.com.  Each week, Rick and Rebecca will choose their favorite question or nugget of advice for possible inclusion in a future column. That school leader will receive a coupon for a FREE book (up to $25), courtesy of Advanced Educational Products (AEP), a national supplier of books for K-12 schools and libraries.

Rick Jetter (@RickJetter; www.rickjetter.com) and Rebecca Coda (@RebeccaCoda; www.digitalnativenetwork.net) offer weekly advice on navigating the waters of school leadership. With more than 34 years of combined teaching and school leadership experience, Rick & Rebecca’s new book, Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank, will be released by Dave Burgess Consulting Inc. in December.