Cooperation, Not Legislation
Under the Missouri Constitution, no government agency can prohibit or punish people’s efforts to cooperate with each other as they strive to attain the best deals they can get in exchange for their labor. Last year, in Independence NEA v. Independence School District, the state’s Supreme Court was called upon to determine whether this right to bargain collectively applies to public employees as well as private ones.
The case came before the Court because the Independence School District decided to unilaterally modify the contract it had reached in collaboration with teachers’ union representatives. The district reasoned that, because teachers were specifically excluded from statutes providing a framework for collective bargaining with public-sector employees, the agreement with the teachers’ unions was not binding — because it had been reached through a sort of collective bargaining process. The Supreme Court disagreed. Even though previous decisions by the Court had limited the scope of the Constitution’s collective bargaining guarantees, the Court overturned those cases and held instead that all employees, including those in the public sector, are protected by the Constitution.
This win for the teachers’ unions has led to quite a conundrum across the state, which is discussed by a story in today’s Springfield News-Leader. In the decision’s aftermath, union officials called for legislators to pass a statute that would govern the collective bargaining process for teachers. Interestingly, however, the Missouri NEA and the MTSA (each of which represent a substantial percentage of teachers in many districts throughout the state) have very different ideas about what would make the best framework. The MNEA, which is the larger organization, wants a winner-takes-all solution in which a majority vote would decide on one union to handle representation for all of a district’s teachers. The MTSA, on the other hand, wants to establish negotiating committees that would allow for proportional representation from both unions. This sort of framework would assure MTSA teachers that their representatives had a seat at the negotiating table, even if a majority of teachers in the district were represented by the MNEA. In short, the teachers’ unions got what they asked for, and now they are each lobbying the state to mediate the resulting conflict.
This situation echoes the broader problem in our union-driven education system: The unions’ proposals call for the legislature to create a one-size-fits-all approach that will bind all of the state’s school districts and teachers. While a state-mandated approach undoubtedly serves the interests of the unions themselves, the idea is really pretty silly. Let the teachers sort out for themselves how to handle bargaining!
Imagine a hypothetical school district that employs 100 teachers, of whom 80 belong to the MNEA, 15 belong to MTSA, and five would prefer to negotiate their own contracts. Why couldn’t the district reach one agreement that would cover MNEA teachers, another that would cover MTSA teachers, and separate contracts to cover the five independents? Under this model, teachers would have a choice about which deal served them best — a union negotiation or an independent contract. If members of one union became disillusioned with their representation, they would have the option of switching to the other union or going independent, a model that would empower individual teachers. I think that’s a very good thing!
The unions, of course, would be appalled by this suggestion. A union wields power by presenting a united front on behalf of all the members of a profession, thus assuring that when potential employers don’t meet the union’s demands, no work will be done. Unions can only maintain this power by ensuring that workers will not seek independent employment agreements that deviate from the union’s demands. Under ideal circumstances, unions should secure cooperation from workers only through persuasion — convincing them that remaining in step with union goals is in their best interest. Unfortunately, however, unions sometimes turn to coercive threats when persuasion proves unsuccessful.
Tying back to the news story, one way to avoid this sort of risky intimidation — while achieving similar results — is for the unions to seek legislation that uses the power of the state to entrench their status and curtail dissent. It should be obvious, however, that it is not appropriate for the unions to use the legislature to accomplish what their reasoning cannot. Teachers (and school districts!) should be free to approach the bargaining table on their own terms, not on terms dictated to them by the unions or the legislature.