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Teacher Strike: There Has to Be a Better Way

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When the relationship between the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers collapsed and the teachers went out on strike, we all witnessed educational paralysis. Thousands of children suffered an unconscionable loss mainly because their school district and their teachers could not get along.

Los Angeles has clearly had the most visible labor-management troubles of any district in California, but it is unfortunately not unique. The Los Angeles impasse is but one manifestation of the adversarial relations that currently exist between teachers and district management in many parts of the state.

In light of these problems, one may appropriately ask: Is it inevitable for school districts and teachers to engage in conflict? Or can both sides in fact better serve their own interests by pursuing a more cooperative style of negotiation?

In the private sector, American companies and unions have been forced by competitive pressures to learn cooperative and participatory styles of labor relations. Can cooperation work in the schools as well? We believe there is no place where it can--and must--work better.

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California’s teachers and district management share a joint responsibility for educating young people. In virtually all things relating to education, they are expected to cooperate. For example, they work together to develop curricula, to devise new programs and to set educational goals for students.

But when it comes to contract negotiations, too often their natural cooperation breaks down and both sides lace up their gloves in anticipation of a fight.

Some blame this anomaly on the application of collective bargaining laws to school districts. We disagree. The collective bargaining structure has proven itself sound and useful. The structure is not intended to be, and need not be, a vehicle for conflict. Just because collective bargaining has sometimes been practiced in confrontational ways does not mean that confrontation is the only way--or even the best way--to operate under the system.

Indeed, negotiation specialists like those at the Harvard University Negotiation Project have found that both sides in a collective bargaining arena stand to gain if they refuse to look at the negotiation as a win/lose proposition and instead treat it as a creative exercise in joint problem solving. Under this approach, the negotiators get together to identify problems, pursue joint interests and establish common goals. In this way, to the greatest extent possible, neither side gives in but rather both sides win.

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It is hard to change from a counterproductive conflict style of collective bargaining to one that stresses the importance of building trust and cooperative, long-term relationships. To do this, both teachers and management need to engage in some new thinking about negotiation.

Several school districts throughout the state, in places like San Marcos (North San Diego County), Folsom-Cordova, Napa and Ukiah have on their own successfully made this change toward collaborative-style collective bargaining. Others have engaged in experimental projects called “trust agreements” where teachers and their districts agree to pursue a cooperative solution to particular problems such as curriculum, staff development or peer review.

However, due to a lack of awareness and familiarity with the process, these encouraging advances have not yet caught on in many parts of California. The state needs to play a role in fostering cooperative bargaining relationships in districts that yearn to pursue alternatives to conflict, but don’t yet have the skills to start.

We support the establishment of a voluntary statewide program for training employee and district negotiators. The program would focus on how to reduce conflict by approaching the collective bargaining relationship in constructive ways.

Administered by the Public Employment Relations Board, the program would provide intensive workshops and seminars in which union and management would jointly participate in forming practical, cooperative partnerships.

An investment of this kind promises to reduce conflict over the long run. And it just might prevent impasses like the one that plagued the Los Angeles district and its students.


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