Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky have walked out of classrooms and shut schools across their states in protest of poor funding and attacks on pensions. Arizona teachers have joined the protests after years of underfunding schools in that state. In Iowa the new collective bargaining law has been in effect for a little over a year and many teachers are just now realizing the impact of the dramatic changes brought about by the legislation.
In addition to changing what topics could be bargained, the new law also made a significant change in union certification. Under the old law a local public employee union held one election to determine if the union would become the exclusive bargaining agent for the employees in that group. If a majority of the people who voted agreed then the union would maintain those rights until a majority voted to take them away. That rarely happened.
The new law made two changes. First it required local unions to hold an election to recertify as the bargaining agent every time a collective bargaining agreement (contract) expired. Since many local unions had one year contracts, that would require an election every year.
Secondly it changed the rules on what constituted a majority vote. Under the new a law a majority meant that the local union had to secure the majority of votes for all people represented by the union. Since a significant number of local unions had less than 50 percent membership, the new law would allow non-members or non-voters to decertify a local union. This definition of a majority created a level of approval never before used in an election in Iowa.
While the bill changing the collective bargaining law was being rushed through the legislature in early 2017, many local education associations raced to bargain new contracts with school districts or sought to extend existing agreements. Reaching an agreement prior to the change in the law delayed a recertification vote until the extended contract expired. Rather than face a recertification vote every year, teachers in several districts agreed to contracts of between three and five years.
Approximately 189 of local public employee unions were successful in reaching an agreement with their district prior to the change in the law. However, it didn’t take long for school district officials and school boards to realize they had tremendous leverage over their employees in these rushed negotiations sessions. School districts successfully used this leverage to get local associations to agree to contracts that provided lower than normal salary increases and to remove contract language that significantly increased the rights of school administrators.
Settlement information was available to the public for 81 of the 189 schools that either extended their contracts or reached agreement on a new contract prior to the change in the law. Of those 40 school districts published the actual increase in salaries and benefits (commonly referred to as total package) for their teachers. In those 40 districts the average total package increase was 1.93 percent. While it is difficult to compare this to any one previous year because of different funding levels, it is possible to compare the increases to the history of settlements in those districts. Using that information it is fairly easy to see that this represents about half of the normal increase that teachers in these districts would receive.
Some of the 40 schools provided reasonable increases. Five districts/AEAs reported increases above three percent (Cal, Allamakee, Clayton Ridge, Great Prairie AEA and West Branch). Unfortunately 23 districts reported settlements of less than two percent. Perry, St. Ansgar and West Central all reported that teacher pay was frozen and that no increases in pay were provided.
It’s important to keep in mind that in virtually all districts teachers pay a portion of their health insurance premiums. Those premiums increased by close to seven percent last year. In 2014-15 the average employee contribution to a family health insurance plan was just over $700 per month. The small pay increases combined with increases in insurance contributions meant that, in many cases, teachers actually took home less money than they did the previous year.
Not only did teachers end up with lower salary increases, but in some cases they forfeited significant contract language. Teachers in Des Moines were able to bargain a contract extension prior to the change in the law, but in order to do so they had to agree to significant changes in transfer language. Previously the major determinant for transfers in Des Moines was seniority. The new language removed that and gave the district much wider freedom to determine who did and did not receive a transfer. While most teachers in Des Moines were told of the change, many were still caught by surprise this year when their requests for a transfer were denied and a less senior employee was granted the change.
While those local unions that were able to bargain new contracts prior to the new law going into effect received lower salary increases and the loss of some contract language, those local unions that were unable to do so faced even greater peril. Settlement information was available for 80 school districts that bargained for the first time under the new law. Under Chapter 20 (the old bargaining law) both management and the union were required to negotiate over a sizable list of topics. Under the new law districts and local unions were only required to discuss one item-base salary. All other items in existing contracts, some that had existed for over 40 years, were deemed to be either permissive (open only by mutual agreement) or illegal.
Since most school districts didn’t have the expertise to interpret the new law they turned to local attorneys or to the Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB) for guidance. Although there has been no clear evidence that any of these attorneys or the IASB gave a directive to school district officials on how to proceed, there is at least some indication they didn’t discourage school districts from removing a great deal of language from existing contracts. IASB, for instance, offered training that included guidance on how to remove permissive language from a contract and place it in a handbook. The organization also brought in a guest speaker from the school board group in Wisconsin to discuss how that state dealt with a similar law.
At least 40 school districts across the state chose to remove all permissive and illegal language from collective bargaining agreements and to place that information in an employee handbook. Those handbooks were not covered by the law and have dubious legal standing. In several cases school districts formed committees with teachers to determine what went into these handbooks. However, the district maintains the right to determine who sits on these committees and there is nothing in the law to prevent a district from making a unilateral change to a handbook when the two sides cannot reach an agreement.
A few districts determined that the existing collective bargaining agreements had been working well and that, since teachers had already agreed to the language, contracts should remain in place. Teachers from 12 districts reported that they had reached an agreement with their school district to keep the majority of all permissive language in the contract. While those districts should be applauded for doing this it is more concerning that over three times that many took a more draconian approach. Teachers in those districts that chose to “gut” collective bargaining agreements now face a future where such basic rights as leaves, vacation, and insurance are subject to the whims of their employers.
Several of the districts that were either in multi-year contracts or who had extended their contracts last year are now facing bargaining under the new law for the first time. The results, so far, haven’t been encouraging.
Faced with a difficult budget caused by underfunding, the Sioux City school district has proposed ending a payment of over $4,700 to 300 teachers who had previously agreed to teach additional classes above their normal workload. Those teachers will still be required to teach the additional class but will not be paid for it.
Several districts have proposed the elimination of salary schedules. Those schedules spell out future pay increases for teachers based upon years of experience and education. They have been a fixture of collective bargaining agreements for years.
Even metro area schools that traditionally have been flush with funds have gotten into the act. One metro area school proposed ending the districts contribution to family health insurance for employees. Under the new law, employees can no longer bargain health insurance. At the time of this writing the issue has yet to be resolved, but under the law the final decision now solely belongs to the district.
Ankeny, one of the fastest growing districts in the state, is also making changes. They have decided to make major changes on giving teachers credit for a master’s degree. Instead the district plans to only offer additional salary for certain master’s degrees that benefit the district. Unfortunately some teachers have already started a program that will lead to an advance degree with the expectation that it would lead to additional pay. Those teachers will now receive a one-time payment ranging from $100 to $1,500, depending upon how many graduate hours they have completed.
The new law is barely a year old, but significant changes in the contractual rights of teachers have already taken place. Contracts in many places have shrunk from 30 page documents that clearly spelled out the rights and responsibilities of management and union to documents that consist of one typewritten page that establishes the base salary to be paid to teachers. Educators across the state are now largely employed at the mercy of local school boards and administrators. In the past, any dispute over contract language would be resolved through a grievance procedure. Under the new reality it is resolved as the district sees fit.
Educators exist in a world with all of the existing pressures, but without many of the resources they need and few of the rights that protected them. Stories are already spreading about treatment that is unfair and arbitrary. While Republicans in the Iowa legislature claim that they passed this law to level the playing field, the reality is that the field is tipped in favor of school districts and that teachers are the ones slipping to the edge and hanging on for dear life. The level of anger and frustration in our schools is increasing. The 2018 elections will provide the first opportunity to get back some of these rights.