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Viable approach needed for future labor negotiations

by: COURTESY OF GWEN SULLIVAN - Gwen Sullivan plans to seek re-election at head of the Portland Association of Teachers.The clock is ticking; the grievances are filed.

As of Dec. 5, there were 22 days left for Portland Public Schools and the Portland Association of Teachers to work out a compromise based on the final offers they submitted to a state mediator on Nov. 27.

The final offers came after a weeklong impasse, nearly eight months into negotiations.

This week the teachers’ union filed a grievance with the Oregon Employment Relations Board, on top of another one filed in November.

Both sides were scheduled to sit down for another mediation session on Dec. 5. To say the relationship between PAT and PPS in past years has been extremely tense is an understatement.

Is there a better way?

Perhaps. PPS and PAT had actually pursued an approach called Interest Based Bargaining last December, for this round of negotiations.

Interest Based Bargaining — also defined more loosely as “sustained union-management collaboration” — means that rather than each party bringing proposals to the table and trading transactions, they share issues, brainstorm and problem-solve.

Rather than just the two sides being involved, other parties — school board members, front-line teachers, principals or community leaders — are typically trained and invited to the table to be part of the process.

During the talks there is a structured process for moving from ideas to concrete proposals.

“Normally mediators parachute in at the end,” says Michael Moffitt, dean of the University of Oregon School of Law. In this model, “the mediator drives the series of meetings and conversations months before the traditional bargaining begins. That advance work makes the bargaining more likely to be successful.”

Moffitt is one of the state’s top experts in the model having used it successfully with the Eugene School District as long as 10 years ago and with the Springfield School District for the past five contracts in a row.

At PPS’ request, Moffitt met with district and PAT leaders last December to talk about how Interest Based Bargaining works, how it’s worked for other districts, and how they could start down this new path.

Neither he nor his colleague were able to make the required time commitment to facilitate the upcoming round of negotiations for PPS and PAT, Moffitt said. But he suggested others.

District officials say they contacted the other facilitators but could not make the timing work because it was already April.

So the new collaborative approach fell by the wayside and the parties are where they are today, at a stalemate with the traditional collective bargaining model.

PAT President Gwen Sullivan wants to make it clear that it was the district that couldn’t make the timing work. Even after they began bargaining, she says, “we said we still want to look at the issues; maybe we can do it through an interest-based approach.”

Cowie says the district has to get through this contract first, but next time, Superintendent “Carole (Smith) did commit to using collaborative bargaining,” he says. “She was very clear that would be an ideal practice to use.”

Interest Based Bargaining has become more common between organizations and their labor groups in the private and public sector across the country, according to Thomas Kochan, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.

“In Massachusetts we do a lot of training for teachers; there’s a growing awareness and increased use,” Kochan says. “It’s not a panacea. It’s a set of problem-solving tools that work well if both parties are committed to using it effectively.”

Bargaining model has obstacles

As education politics have become increasingly politicized, why have PPS and more school districts not yet jumped on board with Interest Based Bargaining?

The time commitment is one big hurdle. Moffitt says since there’s more preparation on the front end, it requires “pre-committing to a whole lot of meetings” before bargaining even starts.

Participants also must be trained in Interest Based Bargaining.

Kochan’s department offers one- or two-day trainings that are free to school districts through a grant program funded by the state of Massachusetts and the nonprofit Massachusetts Education Partnership. The training works best when the union and district are in the same room, Kochan says.

PPS doesn’t use Interest Based Bargaining with any of its unions, and Moffitt says Northwest Natural uses the model with their labor union. But besides Springfield and Eugene, it’s been slow to catch on in Oregon. Change, as they say, is hard.

“It’s asking people on both sides to commit to trying a process they’ve never done before — that’s scary, understandably so,” Moffitt says.

‘I’m an advocate’

As president of the largest teachers union in Oregon, Sullivan might be one of the most powerful women in the state.

She splits her workload between school visits, working from her PAT office, meeting with the district office and lobbying lawmakers in Salem.

She’s led the PAT for three years, elected to a two-year term in 2011 after filling the seat of former president Rebecca Levison in a mid-term election.

Sullivan’s current term ends in June. She told the Tribune this week she will run for another two-year term in the spring to keep the momentum going.

Sullivan cites the momentum she’s built for her members, to empower them to fight for their issues. She cites behind-the-scenes work at the schools, in the community, in Salem and at City Hall, including the $5 million one-time donation PPS received from Mayor Sam Adams in May 2012, to help fill a $10 million budget hole.

“The $5 million from the city would’ve never come if I didn’t talk to Sam,” she says. “I’m an advocate. I do things because the bureaucracy is so thick and twisted. I try to have a more collaborative approach.”

As a mother of two children in PPS, Sullivan is fully surrounded by the highs and lows of everyday classroom experiences and district politics.

Besides protecting her members on compensation, workload and health-care issues, she says she’s proud of her work on teacher evaluations, curriculum, accountability systems and school funding to provide direct-line services for kids.

Advocacy runs in her blood. Her mother and father went into teaching after graduating from Jefferson High School. They taught at schools in North Portland, then moved to North Clackamas, where Sullivan and her brother and sister grew up. They’re both teachers as well.

Sullivan’s mother died of cancer 20 years ago during her term as president of the North Clackamas Education Association. Sullivan took her teaching job, having just finished school.

Sullivan’s father also worked in union leadership. It’s always been a sight, she says, to get her family in a room talking about teachers’ rights.

“I’m the mellow one in the family,” Sullivan says.

Before her role as PAT president, Sullivan held other leadership offices at the union and taught in PPS for 15 years.

Vocal minority on board

This past spring the union’s political and financial backing of retired teacher Steve Buel catapulted Buel to the school board, where he unseated a respected incumbent along the way.

In his first six months on the board, Buel has been a vocal minority many times, speaking out for issues teachers care about like principal accountability and less reliance on standardized testing.

He was the lone vote against the recent impasse.

Sullivan says she doesn’t talk with Buel much: “We have an advocate because as a teacher he just gets what’s going on.”

Buel has attended the bargaining sessions and frequently posts his thoughts on his Facebook page.

On Nov. 20 he vented about the negotiations process: “The main PPS team members (at the bargaining table) don’t seem to have a good sense about what actually takes place in schools and how it all works,” Buel wrote.

“In a typical bargaining year where the goals are clearly defined, this is an impediment, but not a particularly major one. But this year, as part of the bargaining process, PAT appears to have decided to try to deal with major educational problems within our schools which they haven’t been able to get the administration or the board to previously recognize and certainly not address in a manner which includes teachers in the decision-making process. Their frustration has boiled over into negotiations, and rightly so,” he continued.

The 30-day cooling off period ends Dec. 27, at which time teachers could vote to strike.

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