Benning's Bill

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LYNDONVILLE – Following the teachers’ strike in Burlington and teachers coming close to striking in South Burlington, Senator Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, is proposing an education bill for the upcoming legislative session. The proposed bill would prevent school boards from imposing working conditions, prevent teachers from going on strike, and would force initial and subsequent bargaining to happen during public session meetings.

Sen. Benning thinks there will be support for this bill once the new session begins, and said, “The bill hopes to force both sides to remain at the bargaining table until issues are resolved.”

The VT NEA disagrees. Darren Allen, Vermont NEA Communications Director, said, “The bill will weaken the ability of local educators to reach settlements with their local [school] boards.”

According to Allen, the current system has produced more than 5,000 contract agreements in the past 50 years, with school boards imposing employment terms 25 times, while local teacher associations have gone on strike 27 times.

“Most associations and school boards don’t get that far, because most of the time, collective bargaining leads to settlements acceptable to both parties,” said Allen.

“The bill isn’t anti-union, but pro-Vermont,” Benning stated but hopes to create collaboration by forcing both sides to start closer to an agreement by requiring initial and subsequent bargaining to be done in public session. “It forces each side to be more reasonable to avoid public scrutiny,” said Sen. Benning.

Vermont’s Labor Relations Board ruled that the state’s Open Meeting Law doesn’t apply to collective bargaining. The Vermont NEA doesn’t have a problem with bargaining in public. “As long as it is the decision of both the local board and the local association,” said Allen, who also stated that, “The right to peaceably assemble is, of course, enshrined in the First Amendment. When on strike, members are engaging in a constitutionally-protected action. The legal ability to do so- in every state- is derived by the laws of those states.”

The American Civil Liberties Union seems to agree with Allen of the Vermont NEA. Chloe White of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said, “The ACLU opposes government prohibitions and limitations on the right to strike.” According to the Vermont ACLU, organizing and participating in strikes are constitutionally protected forms of speech and action.

Thirty-seven states already have legislation that prevents school boards and teacher’s associations from using these “nuclear options” of imposing employment conditions and going on strike.  “I doubt any court is going to strike it down if it becomes law,” said Sen. Benning.

Allen said, “Each side has a last-resort option that is rarely used. We don’t think a bill that makes it harder to settle and tramples on the rights of local teachers and local school boards will make reaching contract agreements any easier.”

Sen. Benning plans to introduce the bill when the legislature returns to work in January. State Representative Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, will also introduce a draft of the bill in the house.