Bargaining focus of debate

Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Marshall County teachers marching in Nashville include, from left, Robin Minor, Lorrie Clark and Kathy Stapleton.

NASHVILLE -- Public debate took to the streets Saturday when topics included work contracts negotiated by teachers for teachers, their tenure and, among other things, their representation on the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System Board of Directors.

Crowd estimates for the Tennessee Education Association rally on Legislative Plaza ranged from 3,000-6,000. There were 500-1,000 people on Capitol Hill where a Tea Party demonstration supported bills to repeal a 1978 law for school boards to negotiate contracts with teachers.

Tea Partiers emphasized participation by Steelworkers, Teamsters, United Auto Workers and Communication Workers who showed solidarity with teachers for bargaining rights and working conditions such as a duty-free school lunch.

"My lunch or my clothes were covered with throw-up" from a student eating with Nancy Cheatham, the retired Marshall County teacher recalled. "There were times when I taught 41 students in the classroom. When I retired, it was down to 25."

Now, principals, school resource officers and/or others monitor cafeterias, several teachers said as the Marshall County Tea Party met in Lewisburg to hear County GOP Chairman Billy Spivey speak at a meeting coordinated by Sherry Ferguson.

"Teachers are perfectly able to negotiate for themselves" without TEA, Ferguson replied when asked Monday about the demonstrations. "I'm thankful in Tennessee that we have the right to work so that teachers have the right to participate or not" regarding membership in a local education association.

Asked about local teachers negotiating contracts with county school board representatives, Ferguson replied that collective bargaining "is not a right. Rights, according to our Constitution, are given by God. We in America have gotten to where anything we want to do is a right. That's not necessarily so."

Lewisburg Councilman Robin Minor teaches history at Lewisburg Middle School. He marched Saturday. Monday, he repeated his personal concern about proposed changes to the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System Board of Directors.

"We pay into that. Teachers and administrators are on the board. A bill might change that to political appointees of the House and Senate speakers," Minor said of proposals substantiated by a TEA employee. "My question is; would they want to raid the fund?"

Congressional use of Social Security trust funds to balance the federal budget prompts Minor's suspicion, and he asked about TCRS financial security.

"If it's the best of its kind, why fool with it?" the Marshall County teacher asked.

Miley Durham of Lawrenceburg, the TEA Uni-Serve representative for Marshall County teachers and others in South Central Tennessee, said state employees haven't contributed to TCRS since it was changed when Lamar Alexander was governor.

Tenure was another issue for TEA and the Tea Party.

Ferguson takes issue with tenure because, other than federal judges, there's no job with guaranteed employment, she said. "It almost takes an act of God to get them out" when a teacher is found unsuitable.

"Tenure," Minor said, "gives due process."

While due process is protected under the Bill of Rights in court, MCEA President Patty Hill said she knows "of specific examples in Lincoln County" where a college senior about to graduate - who wanted to teach at a particular school and was related to a school board member - was hired in a job that resulted in the "release" of an experienced teacher who had "high evaluations."

"Today, it's a little more subtle," Durham said, acknowledging Hill's example was from what's called another time. "Previously, it was an out and out bribe."

"Terminate Tenure" is what Darrian Malone's sign said Saturday when he displayed it toward the teachers' march.

The Mt. Juliet man was there to "stand up for the rights of the individual," he said.

He estimated the Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill had 500 participants. Other observers told the Tribune up to 1,000 people were there before the TEA march.

Malone's sign "got hit by an umbrella," he said. "I wish we had it on video. There were a lot of union workers" in the march.

Malone sells insurance and advocates "limited government and personal responsibility," he said.

"Pay for performance was another driving message" at the Tea Party rally, he said.

MCEA's lead negotiator for the teachers' contract with the Marshall County School Board is Kathy Stapleton.

"I don't know a teacher who wants a bad teacher" working in schools, Stapleton said.

Nor does she know a principal who gave tenure to a bad teacher, she said.

Marshall County teacher contract talks have been instructive for both sides.

"They've asked, 'Does this really happen?' when we talked about putting in the contract the length of faculty meetings because at times they went extremely late or there was a lack of advance notice" and some teachers had to get babysitters, Stapleton said. "That's not at all schools."

Teachers learned about the county budget process, how much insurance costs and what had to be paid into the TCRS, she said.

All residents have a right to address the school board, she said. It would be difficult for every teacher to speak about working conditions. Marshall teachers didn't use their bargaining rights until only a few years ago. Health insurance is the first of several reasons cited for MCEA becoming a bargaining unit, and not just a professional association.

Ferguson said she's "against any kind of union dues going to any kind of political party. They are there to represent the employees."

The bill to end collective bargaining with teachers is, according to Richard Jackson of United Steel Workers Local 1155 in Warren County, "an attack on any working American." With Jackson at Centennial Plaza was Ronald Black, also of USW 1155: "We're all in this together."

Danny Castleberry of Knoxville is a Teamster political director for Local 519 with 3,000 members.

Proposed laws affecting teachers "is an attack on the middle class way of life," Castleberry said, comparing protests at Wisconsin's Capitol to the rally in Nashville. "There are probably in excess of 20 different unions here [including] 5-6 Teamsters" locals.

"Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has helped awaken a sleeping giant," he said.

Marshall teachers' negotiator mentioned Walker.

"People in Wisconsin knew their governor's platform before the election..." Stapleton said. "Of course we don't know how our governor feels. We know how his party feels."

Acknowledging attendance was down during Saturday's march because of rain, she said, "I hear there's another demonstration planned."