With the approval of Gov. Bill Haslam, House Republicans retreated from a push to prohibit collective bargaining by teachers unions and instead substituted a rewritten bill that puts new restrictions on the practice.
The revised bill was zipped through the House Education Subcommittee on a party-line vote with Democrats protesting they had not had a chance to digest the changes, which were drafted by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, at the request of House Speaker Beth Harwell.
A Senate committee earlier approved the original version, which flatly forbids collective bargaining between teacher organizations and local school boards. About 90 of the state’s 130 school systems now have collective bargaining.
The new version would allow bargaining to continue on basic pay and benefits for teachers, but explicitly keeps some things off the table.
Among the excluded subjects are merit pay, extra “differential pay” for teachers in specific subjects such as math and science, dues deductions for unions, the salary and benefits of principals and “working conditions” of teachers.
The revised bill would make it easier to “decertify” an association as a bargaining agent for teachers, requiring only 30 percent of those covered by an agreement to vote out a union instead of 50 percent as under current law. Also, it calls for all persons covered by a proposed contract to vote on ratification instead of just those who are part of the union, as is the case under current law.
Jerry Winters, lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, said the decision to abandon an outright ban collective bargaining was a positive step.
“We consider that as a sort of victory, without seeing the details,” Winters said. One detail of concern, he said, was what is meant by “working conditions” being off the bargaining table.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville, sponsor of the bill, read a lengthy prepared statement at the outset of the subcommittee session.
“Let me state, unequivocally, Rep. Dunn’s amendment is well thought out and helps us advande this important legislation,” she said. “I am confident this amendment ensures victory and allows us to build even greater consensus in presenting the reform to the governor.”
Harwell said Haslam, who has refrained from taking a position on the original bill, has reviewed the amended version and is “comfortable” with it. The governor later issued a statement declaring his support for the new bill.
“It gives superintendents greater flexibility in making personnel decisions and supports my central focus of doing what’s best for children in Tennessee classrooms. This legislation doesn’t change the fact that teachers will continue to have a voice on issues like pay and benefits,” Haslam said.
Maggart’s comments included a characterization of unions as “the old order, selfish political interests” and other criticism that Winters said amounted to an insult to all teachers as well as the TEA.
In the subcommittee, there was basically no debate on the bill after House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery said he would not go along with Democratic requests to delay a vote for a week to allow review and study of the rewrite.
“Just go on and vote on it, then, and save us the agony of going through this,” said former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh.
Montgomery said there would be ample time to discuss details of the new bill when it comes before the full House Education Committee, probably next week.