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AFT Union Pins Fading Hopes on State Intervention to Save Power in Dougco

For the record, it’s been more than three weeks since I’ve mentioned anything here about Douglas County. (So yes, I was gone for about two weeks of that, not blogging at all, but anyway….) In the meantime, quite a bit has happened — such as the 60,000-student school district became the state’s largest without a recognized teachers union. As of July 1, when the collective bargaining agreement expired, Dougco also stopped collecting dues for the union and its political activities.

On June 21, receiving a clear signal that the reform-minded Board of Education wasn’t going to back down on its key proposals, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) sent a letter to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) requesting state intervention. Read for yourself, but as best as my Education Policy Center friends can tell, union leaders’ argument boiled down to this:

  • The Board made big changes to its proposals midway through the renegotiation process, right before open bargaining sessions began [without noting that the union’s very same request for intervention included several points in which the union was backing out of previous agreement];
  • We’ve had this monopoly bargaining power for 40-plus years;
  • Our exclusive representative status is needed to provide cooperation and stability “essential to good education”; and
  • Your office has used the power to intervene in school district labor disputes before.

I wonder whether the state’s bigger teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, would see state intervention in this dispute as a violation of “local control” in the same way they saw a legislative proposal that would allow teachers to opt in or out of a union any time with 30 days notice.

In any case, the handful of CDLE school district interventions in the past 20-plus years took place during the school year to stop or prevent actual labor stoppages that affected students’ learning and the “public interest.” Also noteworthy is the fact that in a case the DCFT’s letter cited (Martin v Montezuma-Cortez) the state labor department took one of many opportunities to turn down the request to get involved, even as dozens of teachers abandoned the classroom and walked right out of their jobs during the school year.

Now it’s the middle of summer, and more than 99 percent of Douglas County teachers have individual contracts to work under after returning them to the district office. The Board voted unanimously on July 3 to extend all these teachers a 1 percent raise and a 1 percent retention bonus. Among many other points the school district made through its attorneys in a formal response, there really isn’t much the State has the clear authority to do while the union’s request has cost $55,000 in legal fees so far.

Appointed by and accountable to Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper, former Colorado AFL-CIO president and current CDLE executive director Ellen Golombek most likely has great sympathy with the union’s cause but no strong legal case on which to stand. Given the potentially great political risks, will the Governor and labor department head stick out their necks and try to rescue the Douglas County teachers union? (You can also listen to Ben DeGrow give the background and share his thoughts regarding the question on this morning’s Amy Oliver radio show.)

More important to me than the political implications of the call for state intervention is what I pointed out before about rhetoric vs. reality as time unfolds in Douglas County without monopoly union power for the first time in decades:

Some tuned-up rhetoric suggests a cataclysmic outcome. Yet leaders would be beyond foolish to ignore or punish good teachers. And many protections still exist for educators, through provisions in state and federal law, not to mention their continued access to support from various membership options. Even if there’s no collective bargaining agreement….

Of course, it’s also good to remember as Cato’s Neal McCluskey highlighted the other day, that teachers unions are not evil but rather a (major) symptom of a disease. Still, far, far from their protests that the world of public education is coming to an end, most parents and great teachers in Douglas County (and maybe other districts) one day could look back fondly on July 1, 2012, as a watershed moment. I’m not growing up too quickly. I’ll wait and see.