Could Bills Allowing Teacher Furloughs and Pay Cuts Prompt Unionization?

"Your teachers, when they start losing bargaining rights, are going to wind up organizing," says the state commissioner of education.
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Updated April 27, 9 a.m.

Supporters of House Bill 400 have expended quite a bit of energy trying to explain that the legislation is supposed to protect Texas teachers. Rep. Rob Eissler, the chairman of the House Public Education Committee and the bill’s sponsor, even wrote an op-ed extolling the virtues of the measure. Somehow, teachers’ groups still aren’t buying that message—probably because the bill in question gives more power to administrators and allows school districts to reduce teacher pay, furlough teachers and fire teachers on the last day of the school year. It also removes the class size limits currently in place for kindergarten through fourth grade, replacing the 22:1 ratio with a hard limit of 25 in those grades. As for class size limits for remedial students? Gone entirely.

In the face of drastic budget cuts to public schools, superintendents see the measure as vital to keeping the school doors open. Administrators are counting on the legislation, which gives districts a lot of cost-cutting powers, as the only way to balance their budget, while teachers’ groups are deriding the bills as one of the worst education measures in memory. The executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association told the Austin American-Statesman that the bill amounts to “gratuitous violence.” The House is scheduled to vote on the measure Tuesday—and a majority of the House members (all Republicans) have already signed on as either authors or co-authors.

If HB 400 does become law, it will mark a major break with the Texas tradition of protecting teacher contracts. In a state without real collective bargaining, state law has set a reasonably high bar for teacher treatment. By and large, teachers haven’t faced widescale pay cuts or furloughs—and there haven’t been calls for unionization. If we remove those protections, teachers will have to fight with their school district for specific contract planks. And if they start making those fights together, well—that’s not far from the collective bargaining approach that Texas has avoided. Teachers are, after all, notoriously well-organized nationwide, with a lot of money to expend on unionization efforts.

Far-fetched, you say?

Not according to the commissioner of education. The commissioner, Robert Scott, has spent the legislative session navigating the murky waters of being both a gubernatorial appointee and an advocate for education. He’s argued that the state can’t make budget cuts and raise expectations and he’s argued for more funding. He’s also devoted plenty of time to arguing for accountability systems and using anecdotal examples of school inefficiencies. He’s got detractors and supporters on both sides of the aisle.

Scott recently took part in a Texas Monthly roundtable discussion on education, featuring six advocates across the political spectrum. The published and edited piece focuses heavily on funding for schools. But being the nice guys that they are, the Monthly also included the complete unedited transcript of the debate—which includes some lengthy and fascinating discussions, including one on HB 400.

At one point, Scott argued relations between teachers and administrators were getting better in terms of labor-management relations. “The fact that we are able to, as labor, management, teachers, administrators, chambers of commerce, sit down today and discuss alternative compensation in teacher support in ways we wouldn’t have done five years ago is a huge movement in labor-management, district-teacher relations,” he told the others at the table.

When the participants began to discuss teacher contracts, Scott began to discuss “home rule school bills”—those like HB 400 that give the school district administration more power. “When you wind up with home rule school districts—your teachers, when they start losing bargaining rights are going to wind up organizing,” Scott said to Louis Malfaro, the secretary-treasurer for teachers’ union Texas AFT. “I think if you do start, and teachers start losing planning periods and duty-free lunch, what’s their tendency going to be?”

He may not have to wait long to find out.

 

Here’s the entire exchange between Scott and Louis Malfaro, the secretary-treasurer for Texas AFT:

MALFARO: I agree. We should have collective bargaining in every school district in this state. Teachers should be able to sit down with their superintendent and negotiate a contract.

SCOTT: It’s funny you mention that, because that’s where I believe the home rule school bill will actually wind up. When you wind up with home rule school districts—your teachers, when they start losing bargaining rights are going to wind up organizing. I think that’s where you wind up.

MALFARO: I don’t think that bill is going to make it out of both chambers.

SCOTT:Well, you never know. I think if you do start, and teachers start losing planning periods and duty free lunch, what’s their tendency going to be?

MALFARO: Why don’t you talk to Rob Eissler about writing that into the bill?

SCOTT:I’m not going to advocate that. I just think that’s the natural reaction of teachers.

Correction: Texas Monthly’s transcript quoted Malfaro as saying “We shouldn’t have collective bargaining in every school district.” It should have read “We should have collective bargaining in every school district.” They have updated their transcript and I’ve updated this post.