Dispute with teachers shows need for ways to fix impasses

At this stage of a long and acrimonious struggle, the Boston school department and the public don’t need much from the Boston Teachers Union — just a reasonably priced contract that allows for a reliable way to evaluate teachers. State labor officials advanced that goal this week by agreeing to appoint a “fact finder’’ with greater power than a mediator to resolve this labor dispute, in which there’s been little progress since the last contract expired two years ago. But even with the involvement of the fact finder, Boston can’t expect smooth sailing now.

Both sides soon will be asked to make their final proposals to the fact finder. The best case scenario is that the fact finder will agree with the school department’s view that unsatisfactory teachers who don’t respond to an improvement plan can be dismissed after 30 days. In exchange for this and other reforms, the fact-finder could recommend a reasonable wage increase for teachers, on the order of 14 or 15 percent over the life of a six-year contract.

On paper, at least, the school department has the upper hand now. Even if the fact finder fails to make a sensible recommendation — or any recommendation at all — the school department can unilaterally impose its last, best offer on the union, according to city officials. But doing so is likely to set off a furious response by the union in the form of suits for injunctive relief, filings alleging unfair labor practice, and efforts to bury the school department in requests for documentation.


The length and bitterness of this negotiation should give lawmakers pause about the current state of labor laws more generally. While the law allows for arbitration, fact-finding, and other mechanisms to close unresolved disputes, it provides no effective incentives to reach agreements within a reasonable time frame — and few protections against outright intransigence by public-sector unions with unreasonable demands. The teachers’ union has been littering the collective bargaining environment with obstacles. Unrestrained, it could have dragged out the process through and beyond the 2013 mayoral election, hoping for easier pickings from City Hall.

John Dunlap, Boston’s chief of personnel and labor relations, suggests a change in the law that would trigger the arbitration or fact-finding process one year after the expiration of a contract. It’s an intriguing idea. “The longer we go, the uglier it gets,’’ said Dunlap. “After a point there is only ill will, exhaustion, and bad feelings.’’ That’s a perfect description of the current situation. And a sad way to begin a new school year.