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Lawrence Harmon

Declaring peace in teacher contract talks

CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS between teachers’ unions and school districts often resemble the Civil War naval battle between the ironclads Merrimac and Monitor: Each side exchanges broadsides, inflicts casualties, and teeters away claiming victory. There’s got to be a better way to improve schools while ensuring fairness for teachers.

It turns out there is a better method — something labor experts call interest-based bargaining. Basically, it’s the opposite of traditional collective bargaining. Instead of issuing tough demands and counter demands, the sides begin with a clear statement of their interests and objectives. Rather than pummel each other with data, the parties collect information jointly and analyze where each dollar is being spent contractually. And instead of breeding mutual contempt, the bargaining sessions are designed to create trust.

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At a Monday conference in Marlborough sponsored by the Massachusetts Educational Partnership, teachers’ union officials and management representatives from Fitchburg and Franklin told scores of their counterparts from other communities how they overcame mistrust to craft mutually agreeable contracts. Fitchburg, an urban district of 5,000 students, completed its most recent contract negotiation in about a month. Compare that to the 27-month-long battle between Boston’s teachers union and school department that set the city on edge and failed to provide for a longer school day systemwide.

Interest-based bargaining has been around for years in the private sector, sometimes under such shopworn names as win-win bargaining. It got a boost in Boston last year when Northeastern University dean Barry Bluestone and MIT management professor Thomas Cochan co-authored “Toward a New Grand Bargain,’’ a report describing collaborative approaches to labor-management relations, with an emphasis on public schools. They made a good case for a “problem-solving approach based less on the rights of the respective parties and more on the needs of the enterprise to prosper for the benefit of all parties.’’

It might sound naive. But the political climate is right for this approach. Conference-goers acknowledged that inflexible contracts steeped in minutiae about the rights of workers and managers don’t lead to better classrooms. Teachers and school officials are embarrassed by the tricks they use to conceal their bottom lines. Each side recognizes the absurdity of allowing weeks to pass between proposals. Parents, meanwhile, simply want a reliable education for their kids without all these crazy dance steps.

Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said that the complex issues in education are better suited to interest-based bargaining than the traditional approach. New forms of teacher evaluations, the need in some districts for a longer school day, and changes in the curriculum require a more collaborative approach. Traditional collective bargaining works fine if the sides are mainly jousting over the size of raises, said Toner. But that is no longer the norm.

Interest-based bargaining requires key decision makers to be at the table from the start. There’s less reliance on lawyers and other adversarial types. In Fitchburg, the mayor and school superintendent attended all of the negotiation sessions, said Beth Kaake, president of the Fitchburg teachers’ union. In just a handful of sessions, the sides were able to agree on a rollout for extending the school day while rearranging the salary and benefits structure in ways that benefited teachers in their retirement without putting undue financial pressure on the struggling city.

Instead of issuing tough demands and counter demands, the sides begin with a clear statement of their interests and objectives.

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Boston Teachers Union president Richard Stutman sat in the front row during the presentation by the Fitchburg and Franklin negotiators. Stutman is often cast as the most inflexible of union presidents. And the Boston teachers’ contract is often cited as among the most riddled with provisions. But Stutman sounded pretty easygoing following the presentation.

“On most topics, we do have mutual interests,’’ said Stutman. “We’d like a forum for discussing them.’’

Officials from Boston’s school department and teachers’ union would be excellent candidates for training at the bargaining institute run by the educational partnership, which is part of the public management school at UMass Boston. Trainers say that participants can learn the necessary tools and techniques in about a day. That’s a smaller investment of time than the bogus caucuses and other stalling tactics commonly used during traditional collective bargaining.

There’s no reason that interest-based bargaining in the public sector should be limited to schools. Police, fire, libraries, and other municipal departments might also find that the old way of negotiating contracts is a bad deal all around.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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