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Latest News - April 2015

April 8, 2015

Controversial bill that would have banned teacher strikes and the ability of school boards to impose labor contracts was slashed down to a task force. The study committee will report findings and recommendations to the Vermont Legislature in the fall.

The House of Representatives debated the bill, H.76, and a series of amendments that whittled away at the bill’s original purpose, for nearly five hours Wednesday.

Tensions ran high. Proponents of the ban passionately argued that teacher strikes are harmful to students and communities, while opponents defended the importance of labor unions and teachers.

In the end, the House replaced the meat of H.76 with a seven-member task force to study labor issues, in a roll call vote of 75 to 61. A final vote is expected Thursday.

Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, said the House should study the issue before taking action to ban strikes or impositions.

“I’m proposing an alternate approach here,” Jewett said as he addressed the Democratic caucus earlier in the day. Less than 1 percent of impasses result in strikes or contract impositions in Vermont.

Jewett said reconciling staff and infrastructure at a time when the state is faced with declining enrollments is the most critical educational issue now facing the Legislature.

The vote followed a day of debate and behind-the-scenes gatherings on details of the original legislation.

An earlier amendment brought by H.76’s original author, Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, and Reps. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, and Kevin “Coach” Christie, D-Hartford, would have preserved the ban on teacher strikes and contract impositions, and also called for a study group to look at how to improve the process and bring the two sides to finality in labor impasses without what Wright called “the nuclear options” school boards and the Vermont-National Education Association use to end disputes.

That version failed on a vote of 70-73, with several lawmakers absent.

“I’m happy about the fact that we got so close,” Wright said after the vote. He said several lawmakers he knew supported his amendment were out sick, and those votes, it turned out, were critical to the outcome.

However Wright said the decision to go with a study was disappointing. “Frankly, I think, it’s going to be a big waste of time.”

“I think there was a lot of arm-twisting going on in this building,” he said.

The Vermont-NEA and the House leadership rallied against the bill’s passage, Wright said.

Many members of the Democratic caucus have been endorsed by the powerful union, which represents 10,000 teachers in Vermont.

Darren Allen, spokesman for the Vermont-NEA, said after the vote that the union does not believe the current collective bargaining process is flawed. He said it’s fair to ask a study group to look into concerns and report back without forcing major changes to the equation.

“We’re going to enter this in good faith,” Allen said.

The original bill banning strikes and contract imposition was approved by the House Education Committee but failed in the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee.

Wright said his bill was not aimed at teachers, but at finding a process that works for everyone – and doesn’t leave “nuclear options” on the table that hurt students and communities.

During strikes, school board members are vilified, and teachers are at odds with families in their communities, Wright said. The bill, he said, “would have ended these disruptive, divisive strikes.”

Wright, on the House floor Wednesday, read newspaper headlines from Colchester, Bennington and South Burlington saying all strikes hurt kids and communities. He said the governor and the Secretary of the Agency of Education support banning strikes, as well.

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, vice chairman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, said his committee heard the Jewett amendment Wednesday morning but did not vote on it. He said the study would be “all-encompassing” and would look at strikes and contract impositions.

“This is an awesome opportunity for this body to discuss … what unions are and why they are,” Stevens said during the floor debate.

Many lawmakers defended teachers and labor unions during the debate.

“Teachers should be treated like everybody else,” said Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre, saying he comes from a strong labor community. He asked what would stop the Legislature from coming back next year and banning strikes on nurses or other groups.

Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, talked about the historical role of unions for working Americans, from fighting for fair wages to working conditions to pensions for retirees.

“We have good labor relations in this state, we have good relationships throughout our educational system,” Donovan said.



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