Election gives GOP upper hand in dealing with unions

November 20, 2010

The goals of Gov. Mitch Daniels and his fellow Republican lawmakers next year could chisel away further at the clout that has dwindled among the state’s unions in recent years.

Daniels Gov. Daniels likely to get help from GOP-controlled House.

Pushing for teachers to be paid for performance and cementing practices such as state employee evaluations—which often are tied to merit pay—into state law are among the initiatives expected to gain steam under Daniels and the GOP-led House and Senate.

They also could scale back what teachers’ unions can negotiate in their collective bargaining agreements—eliminating their ability, for example, to dictate in those agreements that layoffs should occur by seniority.

Less clear is whether there will be momentum for a move to make Indiana a right-to-work state, where employees at union shops can opt out of paying for representation. Early indications from key Republican leaders suggest such a measure won’t get much traction.

David Warrick David Warrick, other union leaders bracing for changes.

But even without that issue on the table, some experts say the kinds of initiatives put forth by the GOP go against union ideals—and ultimately could affect their clout.

“It will have an impact,” said David Macpherson, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio who studies labor economics and analyzes union membership on a website, unionstats.com. “Unions have traditionally argued for trying to pay workers [by seniority]. To the extent you start getting more merit pay—that gets away from the union goal.”

In the Nov. 2 election, Republicans regained control of the Indiana House for the first time in four years, and now control 60 of 100 seats in that chamber. They also added to their majority in the Senate.

Union representatives are undeterred and say they don’t see the GOP assault on union principles as a threat to their membership. Public employee union membership numbers have remained steady—just above 30 percent in Indiana—over the last several years, even as private-sector union membership has declined here and nationwide.

But challenging times could lie ahead. When the GOP gained control of the House in 1995, Republican lawmakers used the opportunity to bar teachers’ unions from collecting dues from teachers who do not join.

And when Daniels took office from Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan in 2005, he did away with collective bargaining for state employees, giving him more flexibility to overhaul government. Membership in groups such as AFSCME Council 62 plummeted as a result.

Ambitious agenda

It’s not yet clear whether Daniels will push for a proposal that makes the elimination of state employee collective bargaining part of state law, which would disable a future governor from restoring the practice without legislative approval. For 15 years before his tenure, state workers were able to negotiate pay, benefits and work rules.

Daniels’ spokeswoman, Jane Jankowski, said the administration would be “working with the Legislature on putting into law what is current practice for state employees,” but she would not provide specifics.

Some experts say that, based on other initiatives Daniels has discussed for state employees, that’s clearly his intention.

“There’s no doubt that’s what he is doing,” said Richard Reinhardt, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based F&H Solutions Group, a labor consultancy that works with union and non-union firms.

Even if state employee collective bargaining was not explicitly prohibited by law, other proposals Daniels has discussed could make it tough for any future governor to restore it.

For example, Daniels wants to make state employee evaluations, which were put into state policy after collective bargaining was dissolved, part of state law.

He does not intend to stipulate in law that employees be paid based on performance. But even without merit pay in law, the practice likely would continue if evaluations did, experts say, because it’s uncommon to have employee evaluations without that kind of pay system.

And if both were in place, coming to an agreement through collective bargaining would be difficult for the state and public-employee unions. Some say that could discourage collective bargaining.

“The unions would be at the bargaining table arguing how to make the evaluations more objective and what kind of controls would be in place so members would be treated fairly under the system,” Reinhardt said. “That would be a very heated argument between both sides, and I’m not sure the state wants to devote time to that.”

Another Daniels initiative could strike at public employee unions’ financial strength.

He wants to bar future governors from allowing unions to collect dues from all state employees, whether or not they are union members. That would make it hard to revive a provision in place during the collective bargaining era that allowed unions to deduct dues from all state employees’ paychecks but required their signed consent to do so.

Without the right to deduct dues from paychecks, Reinhardt said, unions would be limited in how much they could raise to support their agendas and pay staff.

But David Warrick, executive director of AFSCME Council 62, which represents some state employees, said the union rarely enforced its ability to collect those dues, anyway.

While he acknowledges that evaluations and merit pay would restrict collective bargaining, he holds out hope the practice could be brought back by another governor—and that his membership would be restored because of it.

“There are so many other things collective bargaining does,” Warrick said. “The vast majority of folks who want to have union representation, it’s because of their treatment and the disrespect they receive on the job.”

Governor targets schools

The scope of teachers’ collective bargaining agreements, which now outline things such as salary, layoffs, textbooks and where teachers are assigned to teach, also could be diminished.

Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Patrick Bauer, the House’s Democratic minority leader, said they think teacher collective bargaining will be nixed altogether. His Republican counterparts have not indicated that will be the case.

They have, however, suggested they want to scale back the ability of teachers’ unions to negotiate language that limits the flexibility of administrators and school boards.

“Our schools need to focus on students rather than adults. Whatever is necessary to achieve that result is what we need to do,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

“That may mean taking a look at certain practices in place today—including layoffs by seniority and giving school superintendents and boards tools to deal with nonperforming teachers or reward high-performing teachers—regardless of what collective bargaining agreements say.”

What’s clear is that Daniels and Republican lawmakers want teachers to be rewarded on their performance, rather than factors such as educational attainment and seniority. That’s an idea that concerns teachers’ unions, who fret over how the money will be divided up and who will receive it.

How much the merit pay would affect unions’ clout, though, depends on whether lawmakers craft a broad merit-pay proposal that dictates specific terms for all school districts, or a less restrictive one that lets locals decide the conditions.

If it’s the first option, unions’ say in the process would be greatly restricted, but if it’s the second, they would play an important role in negotiating terms of performance-based pay that are favorable to teachers.

Jonathan Plucker, director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, said an approach that lets local districts decide is preferable—and the option he hopes lawmakers will pursue.

“I put a lot of faith in the ability and passions of our local educators to figure this out,” Plucker said. “The odds of creating long-term change are much better if we do that and carefully study what happens.”

Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said either scenario would rally more support for the union among members.

“If teachers know those who have never been in the classroom are making decisions about their jobs,” Schnellenberger said, “they’ll more and more see the value of an association to be their voice.”

But that assumes membership isn’t decreased by other forces.

Daniels and Republican lawmakers want to increase the number of charter schools, which are publicly funded but whose employees typically are not union members.

That means, in time, the ratio of traditional public to charter schools could shift. And, if charter schoolteachers do not start to unionize here, as they have in a few other states, Plucker said, that “could have huge implications down the road.”•


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