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.
There is -- something labor experts call interest-based bargaining. Instead of issuing tough demands and counter demands, the sides begin by stating their interests and objectives. Rather than pummel each other with data, they collect information jointly and analyze where each dollar is being spent. Instead of breeding mutual contempt, the bargaining sessions are designed to create trust.
At a conference last week in Marlborough, Mass., teacher and management representatives from nearby school districts in Fitchburg and Franklin told scores of counterparts how they overcame mistrust to craft mutually agreeable contracts. Fitchburg, an urban district of 5,000 students, completed its most recent negotiation in a month.
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 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. 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 the crazy dance steps.
Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said 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 curriculum require a collaborative approach. Traditional collective bargaining works fine if the sides are mainly jousting over the size of raises. 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. In just a handful of meetings, 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.
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 writes for the Boston Globe (email@example.com).