Union contracts often pick winners and losers in the workplace. However, teachers unions may soon lose the power to pick losers—at least in Kansas. Legislators there are considering giving unionized teachers the option of negotiating for themselves.
The pain of union control is illustrated by Bria Klotz, a former sixth-grade teacher in Lawrence, Kansas. She won statewide recognition for her excellence in the classroom. She nonetheless got laid off when Lawrence Public Schools had to make cuts.
Why did she lose out? Her union contract called for seniority-based layoffs, so she was among the first to go. The winners? The more senior union members who got ironclad job security from the contract.
Teachers in Kansas (and the rest of America) have little say about union representation. Most education unions were formed decades ago. For example, Kansas passed its collective bargaining law in 1970. Few teachers who voted in those elections remain in the classroom. Most have retired, and their replacements were never asked if they wanted a union. In many of Kansas’s largest school districts—including Wichita and Topeka—not one current teacher voted for Kansas National Education Association (KNEA) representation.
Kansas’s right-to-work law means the KNEA cannot force teachers to pay dues. However, nonmembers must still work under the union’s contract. Stellar new teachers like Klotz might prefer alternative layoff standards to the dated system of seniority-based layoffs. However, due to their contracts, these teachers must still accept the union’s seniority system. This lets unions benefit some workers (like senior members) at the expense of others (like new hires).
Kansas legislators are considering changing this. Kansas HB 2027 overhauls collective bargaining in public schools. The bill has attracted attention for limiting what unions can negotiate. Among other changes, it lets districts set teacher evaluation standards without union interference.
Another significant provision has attracted much less attention. The bill requires unions to stand for re-election every two years. Teachers unhappy with their union could vote it out. Even better, the bill also lets teachers negotiate individual contracts. Anyone who loses under the KNEA contract could negotiate a better deal separately.
This would prevent unions from picking winners and losers. Good teachers would not have to wait for seniority-based raises. They could negotiate separately for performance pay. Anyone who objected to seniority-based layoffs could negotiate different standards. Education unions could not force teachers like Bria Klotz to walk the plank to protect their senior members.
This is a far-reaching proposal. Up until now, state laws have been all or nothing: either union contracts cover everyone, or the government does not collectively bargain at all. Kansas would be the first state to make collective bargaining optional. This freedom would minimize union inefficiencies while allowing them to provide a collective voice for employees who want one. This may prove attractive to states looking to limit union power without eliminating collective bargaining.
Unsurprisingly, the KNEA has not reacted well to the proposal. The union has denounced HB 2027 as a “war on teachers.” They claim it would “give permission for anyone to accept their own sweetheart deal” and force “teachers to go around every two years and spend time working a new bargaining election.” That is not exactly horrifying.
While Kansas state representatives have voted the bill out of committee, they have announced they will spend the summer considering the policy before moving forward. A thorough evaluation of this proposal should find that Kansas lawmakers have a good idea. Why shouldn’t teachers get to choose their bargaining agent? And why should good teachers be forced to accept bad contracts?