Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Republican-controlled General Assembly on Friday passed a bill to replace Tennessee teachers' collective bargaining rights with a concept called collaborative conferencing.
The bill was the result of an effort to reconcile competing House and Senate versions of legislation seeking to dial back union negations. The House adopted the bill on a 55-40 vote while hundreds of teachers watched at the Capitol.
Several teachers shouted "Shame on you!" as they shuffled out of the chamber after the 2 ½-hour debate.
The Senate earlier voted 19-12 for the measure.
"What we're trying to do is go from a combative concept that is inherent to collective bargaining ... to a problem-solving and issue-based approach," said Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley noted that the legislation would allow school districts to dictate terms to teachers if no agreement is struck.
"This bill does nothing except take away every part of professional negotiation, every single part," Fitzhugh, a Democrat, said. "Don't be fooled."
The measure would continue to allow payroll deductions to pay for union dues, but it would bar that money from being used for political purposes like candidate contributions.
Democratic Sen. Andy Berke of Chattanooga said that provision underscored arguments by the Tennessee Education Association that the collective bargaining legislation is political retribution for the union's longtime support for Democratic candidates.
"The accusation that people fought back on was that this was political payback," he said. "And now we have a provision in here that takes out their ability to engage in political activity."
The proposal would establish a proportional system for how professional organizations would be represented on the conference committees, meaning any group that is supported by 15 percent of teachers could be represented on the panels.
The measure would replace union contracts with binding memorandums of understanding on issues such as salaries, grievances, benefits and working conditions. But it would shield other areas such as differentiated pay or evaluations from discussions.
Teaches watching the proceedings from the House gallery were cautioned to remain quiet during the debate by Republican Speaker Beth Harwell. They reacted by waving their arms in support of comments or giving the thumbs-down sign to those with whom they disagreed.
"I think things should stay the way they were," said Dale Dworak, a government and history teacher in Chattanooga. "It's wrong for our kids."
Mildred Williams, a 6th-grade social studies teacher in Memphis, said she expects repercussions at the ballot box.
"Teacher morale at this time is very low, we are upset and angry," she said. "And we want this body to know that our voices will be heard ... at the next election."
TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters said the new version of the bill is preferable to the original Senate version that sought to scuttle union negotiations altogether and replace them with employee manuals crafted by the school districts.
"It's not a policy manual, which was the ultimate in silliness," Winters said. "So it's an improvement there."
Winters said his organization, which represents 52,000 educators, would retain a prominent role under the proposed changes.
"We're going to represent the teachers of this state in whatever forum we have to use," he said. "We're the majority organization across this state, and we're going to be the majority on these committees.
"And we're going to be there speaking out for teachers at every opportunity."
Read HB130 at: http://capitol.tn.gov
Erik Schelzig can be reached at http://twitter.com/SchelzigAP
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