After Teachers Walk Out In Burlington, Lawmakers Push For Ban On Teacher Strikes

Sep 21, 2017

The Burlington teacher strike is over, but it’s reignited a political debate that will run well into the next legislative session.

Two prominent lawmakers will soon introduce legislation that would prohibit public school teachers from going on strike. Earlier this week, with the city-wide teacher strike in its third day, Burlington Rep. Kurt Wright held a late morning press conference at City Hall to announce the plan.

Wright said teachers have perhaps the most important jobs in the state.

“And as such, we want teachers to be the most respected profession, the most revered people in our community,” Wright said.

But Wright said respect and reverence for teachers was now at risk, as the parents of nearly 4,000 students tried to finagle last-minute childcare arrangements as a result of the strike.

“Fairly or unfairly, it creates animosity in the community amongst many. It creates division. It disrupts families,” Wright said. “And it leaves scars behind in the community in its aftermath.”

Wright says Vermont can put an end to that division by putting an end to teacher strikes.

“It’s not a great position to have teachers in a position where they’re striking, in an adversarial position with the school board,” he said. “There’s got to be a better way than that.”

"The current framework for negotiating generally produces a result that gets both sides to shake hands and go back to work." — Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe

Wright and Caledonia County Sen. Joe Benning, both Republicans, say the “better way” is to force school boards and local union associations to negotiate until they have a breakthrough. And they’ll introduce legislation in both the House and Senate next year that would strip unionized educators of their ability to strike.

It’s not a new idea. A similar bill, which was introduced by Wright two years ago, failed by a single vote in the Vermont House. Darren Allen, director of communications for the Vermont-NEA, says there’s a good reason lawmakers rejected it then.

“We don’t think that the state’s involvement makes it easier for local school boards and local educators to make decisions,” Allen says.

Wright and Benning view the Burlington strike as a symptom of a fundamentally broken bargaining system. Union officials, however, say it’s the leverage point they need to negotiate fair compensation and working conditions.

The two lawmakers say their legislation won’t alter the power dynamic between school boards and local teacher associations, because the bill will also strip boards of the ability to impose contracts on teachers, as they’re currently able to do.

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe says it isn’t surprising the issue is resurfacing now.

"It's questionable whether or not a process that was created in the 1960s using a real industrial era framework ... [is] a good fit for today's educational context." — Nicole Mace, Vermont School Boards Association

“Politicians will always latch on to one-off instances to make the case for desired legislation,” Ashe says.

But Ashe says that’s just what the Burlington situation appears to be - a one-off.

“The current framework for negotiating generally produces a result that gets both sides to shake hands and go back to work,” Ashe says.

Ashe says he’s willing to consider proposed reforms to teacher contract negotiations, so long as it preserves equal leverage for both sides.

Wright and Benning likely won’t be getting much help on their legislative push from Republican Gov. Phil Scott. Scott’s communications director, Rebecca Kelley, says the governor believes that “teachers have a right to strike and school boards have a right to impose contracts.” And she says it’s not clear to the administration how banning strikes would solve what Scott sees as the chief problem in Vermont education system: its cost.

But Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, says it’s time for lawmakers to revisit bargaining statutes. Association members authored a resolution two years ago supporting Wright’s bill.

“It’s questionable whether or not a process that was created in the 1960s using a real industrial era framework in terms of labor versus management, whether that’s a good fit for today’s educational context,” Mace says.

Wright and Benning say they plan to push for hearings on their legislation in both chambers of the Legislature next year. And while not a supporter of the bill, Scott’s spokeswoman says he would consider signing it, if it made it through the Legislature.