Playing Hardball 

How to handle the teachers' negotiations

How to handle the teachers' negotiations

As labor showdowns go, nobody is ever going to mistake the face-off between the Davidson County Board of Education and the Metro Nashville Education Association for any of the epochal proletarian struggles of the last 120 years. But at least they have spared themselves the public humiliation of a total rout, as occurred recently in the showdown between the Federal Express pilots and management in Memphis. Although talks continue on a contract at FedEx, the pilots were ultimately forced to drop their strike threat and their refusal to work overtime. In doing so, they unilaterally disarmed themselves in the contract struggle.

The Metro Nashville Education Association’s (MNEA) tame work-to-rule job action is more about capturing the moral high ground than about really disrupting the operations of the public schools. By declaring their unwillingness to do any more than their literal contractual obligations, the teachers are trying to underscore that they do what most professionals do, which is to say, more than the bare minimum of the job requirements.

While this has produced some disruptions in after-school activities, mainly at the high-school level, learning is largely continuing. No one is thinking seriously about contingency plans to bring in parent volunteers to keep the pedagogy going when the teachers hit the bricks. By stressing the things they do beyond the requirements, the teachers are talking more to the community at large about their moral worthiness to be paid more money than to the school administration about their true economic value.

As they have generally done throughout this decade, the teachers are once again besting the school board at the public process of negotiation, which has meant consistently better pay raises than other Metro employees. But, for a change, the school board is hanging tougher than usual, and may even be prepared to manage its budget in a fiscally responsible fashion. The board’s fiscal case has been strong enough that the teachers have been reduced to arguing for a raid on the school system’s rainy-day fund, the ultimate fiscal sin of committing one-time funds for recurring expenses.

Of course, the negotiation is proceeding as a genteel cat-and-mouse game because there is so little on the table for both parties. The fate of the teachers’ union is not hanging in the balance; nor are the jobs of the teachers. The public school system is not in danger of closing if an acceptable settlement can’t be reached.

By contrast, the FedEx strike that was threatened for this month was taking shape as the kind of thing in which both parties pushed all their chips to the center of the table before the pilots blinked. Struggling to get their first union contract since voting to organize in 1993, the pilots had threatened to shut down deliveries for the key Christmas delivery season unless they achieved their goals for salary and work-rule improvements.

In turn, FedEx management began lining up trucking and air freight alternatives to diminish the pilots’ leverage in the talks. In case anyone on the pilots’ side didn’t get the message, FedEx chairman Frederick Smith also sent them a truculent memo expressing his desire for an amiable settlement and telling the pilots of his determination to move forward “WITH OR WITHOUT YOU” (his emphasis). While he was at it, Smith withdrew the most recent offer to the pilots, saying the company’s preparations to weather the strike had made the last offer unaffordable.

The contrast is easy enough to explain. Federal Express was prepared to play hardball with its pilots because it is a public company in a tough competitive environment. Although the highly visible leader in overnight delivery service, FedEx faces an array of competitors in the package delivery and air freight businesses (including even the U.S. Postal Service) that keep the prices low and the margins razor thin. The most striking evidence of this has been the subpar total returns of the company’s stock over the last five years compared to the market as a whole (although the company does relatively well within its industry segment).

While Nashville’s public schools may have lost market share to private competitors over the years, prices and profits are not the issue in what is primarily a political process. In teacher pay negotiations, a political pressure group seeks to use its clout with elected representatives to get what they want. There is nothing wrong or evil about that: the teachers are merely pursuing their rational self-interest, and that’s the way the system is supposed to work.

That is not how the teachers would like the public to be thinking about the issue, however. Because they perform a socially important function, teachers have always made the argument that they have a moral claim on higher pay reflecting the importance of what they do. Indeed, the teachers like to portray themselves as synonymous with education—a notion that is rebutted by the conspicuous silence of the MNEA during the two years of bruising council debate over the education reform tax packages of 1997 and 1998. Of course, one generally starts arguing about a moral claim to higher pay after the market has made a much stingier judgment.

It is standard education reform rhetoric to talk about the importance of attracting our brightest young people into the field of teaching. It is also nonsense. The country does not need its best mathematical minds teaching arithmetic to fifth graders nor its best future scientists teaching beginning biology. The economic vitality of the country requires that these kinds of people maximize their abilities by plying them at much higher levels.

For our schools, we need good people—teachers who are reasonably educated, dedicated, caring, sympathetic, and skilled. While these qualities are not as common in life as we would all like them to be, they are not as scarce as brilliance. Consequently, they are not compensated the same way.

While school board members would no doubt like to see teachers paid more (just as all of us would like to see everybody else except basketball players paid more), they have a duty to make a harder-nosed judgment here. Because, over the years, the teachers have succeeded in bullying the board into accepting the notion that any loose money the teachers can find in the budget should automatically go to teacher pay, there is no longer any slack in the schools’ budget. Faced with a significant shortfall in projected sales-tax revenue and the squeeze of looming pension obligations, the board finds itself with no means to raise the pay of the teachers without making real program cuts or taking up the MNEA’s fiscally unconscionable suggestions.

Under the circumstances, the board would do well to ask itself some basic questions—like why it needs to give pay raises at all. From a management standpoint, pay raises are meant to serve two objectives: first, to assure the district’s continuing ability to attract and retain good quality teachers, and second, to maintain employee morale. These objectives are meant to serve the board’s broader goal of providing the best quality education for the children of Davidson County. (You will note that neither of these objectives has anything to do with morality or the importance of education to society.)

While any budget as large and political as that for the schools is bound to contain its share of ineffective programs, it is not likely that the kind of money the MNEA is asking for in raises could be found without diminishing real programs. Would such cuts be worth it compared to the management goals of increased pay? Probably not.

The question the board should always be asking, given finite resources, is where an incremental dollar will do the most good for the students. Greater pay raises, at this point, probably represent a diminishing return on investment—and indeed probably a negative one when coupled with the other program cuts that would be necessary to fund them. Indeed, even if the board were to come into some additional windfall of money, there are probably ways to spend it that would have a higher yield for pupil performance than higher pay, especially in the short term.

Metro teachers are already the best paid in the region, and there is no shortage of people who want to teach in Davidson County. The school district could probably go several years without pay raises and not damage its ability to attract quality teachers, although retention and morale would become an increasing (although not dispositive) issue. Indeed, Metropolitan Government workers went five years without pay raises in the late 1980s and early 1990s without suffering a devastating brain drain.

The school board appears to be getting ready to go ahead and impose a settlement on the teachers, whether an agreement is reached or not. There are pitfalls to this approach—notably the sullen resentment that will continue to fester. The board might do well to look at Mayor Phil Bredesen’s approach to a similar situation in 1993. Bredesen, seeking a comprehensive agreement with the city’s main unions on a three-year pay plan (which ultimately made up the lion’s share of the 1993 tax increase), succeeded in reaching terms with the service employees and police officers.

The fire fighters union rejected the plan. They apparently believed that either there would be a better offer to come, or that they would still receive the same raise as other employees while leaving open the door to agitate for larger raises in years two and three. Rather than simply going ahead with the plan and setting himself up for three years of sniping and complaining, Bredesen pulled the offer for the fire fighters. Faced with no raises when other Metro employees were scheduled to get 5 percent raises, the fire fighters reconsidered and approved the offer.

In the case of Federal Express, the pilots caved because they knew they had a losing hand. Management had made a judgment that there were more important things to the overall enterprise than any benefits that would be gained by placating the pilots. This issue was reinforced when other FedEx employees held an allegedly unsponsored demonstration in support of management over the pilots. The clerks and drivers at FedEx didn’t want their livelihoods threatened by the salary demands of pilots making an average of $142,00 a year. The school board is going to have to make a similar judgment about the importance of teachers as opposed to the importance of education.

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