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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

NTA EBulletin: March 3, 2024

Dear Colleagues and Unionists:

One of the buzz words that Anna Nolin and Chris Brezski have been using frequently is the idea of "interest based-bargaining." I want to say a few words about it, with some editorializing about why I believe it is not the panacea that Anna and Chris present it to be. 

During the last three contract cycles, we have used what is called "positional bargaining." In positional bargaining, the parties come to the table with their respective proposals, and present these proposals to each other, each side replying to the proposals, or "positions," that the other side is presenting.

For example, at the beginning of negotiations, we proposed extending parental leave to 60 paid days, but for the duration of our negotiations until we went on strike, the school committee rejected that proposal. Then, during the strike, the school committee made a counter-proposal in a different, but very workable framework. While we were at the table together, Sean Mannion, who came up with the idea, presented the proposal, explained its logic, and answered our questions. The NTA Negotiations Team then "caucused," after which, when we came back to the room, we counter proposed with a modification of their proposal. Eventually, through one or two more exchanges like this, we reached an agreement. Though the final proposal we agreed on was a compromise, it provided a good framework and a real improvement of the parental leave benefit for NTA members, guaranteeing everyone 40 paid days and up to 60, depending on how many sick leave days a member has accumulated. And the framework of the proposal allows for us to easily negotiate future modification of its terms, so that in successor negotiations the policy could be expanded to offer the full 60 days paid leave to more or even all members.

That's how positional bargaining works. In interest based bargaining, the parties initially do not come to the table with proposals, but rather, they come to the table to have a conversation about their common interests. Then, based on an shared understanding of these interests, the parties determine what changes, if any, should be made to the contract. The parties public communications about the progress of negotiations are joint. Neither party discloses what is happening in negotiations unilaterally.

With this approach, the parties must indeed have shared interests, as well as a shared understanding of the pertinent facts. Around salaries and colas, for instance, the NTA and the NPS may agree that they want to offer competitive salaries. But they would also have to agree on how to measure whether Newton salaries are actually competitive. For example, one question might be whether one should count steps when calculating salary increases, or just COLAs? We would have to agree on which districts to use for comparison purposes. We would have to factor in the relative cost to the district and the member of health insurance and other benefits and how do you weigh these benefits. 

In principal, interest based bargaining sounds very appealing. In fact, the NTA and the NPS attempted to use interest based bargaining to bargain the 2003-2006 and the 2006-2009 contracts, but the bargaining generally broke down when the sides were not able to agree on financial matters. 

The parties must be forthright and honest, and they must actually share many of the same interests ,because interest based bargaining depends on identifying common interests, and on establishing trust.

During our last negotiations, at least with regard to the positions that each party took in negotiations, we did not have much in the way of common interests with the school committee.

In fact, it was apparent from the beginning of the negotiations that we shared very disparate interests: The School Committee's primary interests were: (1) keeping Cost of Living Adjustments low--much lower than the cost of living had actually increased; (2) shifting some of the costs of health insurance from the district onto NTA members; (3) reducing sick leave benefits for early career members; (4) limiting the benefit of having the children of NTA employees attend the NPS; (5) limiting member access to the sick leave bank; (6) increasing management control over the work day of NTA members; (7) increasing the work year by two to three days for additional professional development.

The NTA's primary interests were: (1) Cost of Living Adjustments that actually made up for the loss in real wages over the past three years due to inflation; (2) raises for Unit C members that would provide for a living wage; (3) a humane and modern parental leave policy; (4) contractually guaranteed mental health supports in NECP, elementary schools, and middle schools; (5) contractually guaranteed improved coverage for absences at all levels; (6) contractually guaranteed lower class sizes in the high schools. 

Our interests were very different and, for the most part, through positional bargaining, and, eventually a strike, we were able to prevail and win much of what we were bargaining for, while pushing back on the school committee's negotiating positions.

Had we not gone on strike, the path ahead was clear: the school committee was driving us towards impasse at the table, and an eventual imposition of their last best offer, which included all of what they were bargaining for, and little of what we were bargaining for. They were making a legally sanctioned power move. To avoid this, we had to assert our own power, and withhold our labor, even though this was illegal. The law empowered management, and disempowered us. We chose civil disobedience. 

One could argue that through interest based bargaining the sides would not have begun from such diametrically opposed positions, which then led to polarizing negotiations and campaigning. 

I'm skeptical. Over the last 17 months, the school committee and mayor, working with their mercenary attorney Liz Valerio, showed that their primary interest was in breaking the NTA's power. How do we go from that to a method of bargaining that requires trust?

The school committee and mayor were never honest about their financial constraints. Before we went on strike, we submitted a legally binding information request. We asked Mayor Fuller and the school committee to tell us the sources and amount of funds that Mayor Fuller was providing the schools, and over what period of time it would be allocated. They did not answer that request until we demanded it of them at the bargaining table during the strike. When they did, they were untruthful, refusing to disclose what we requested they share.

When negotiations ended, in a presentation to the City Council, and in other public presentations, it has become clear that the school committee was reserving 9 million dollars over the next three years for Anna Nolin's initiatives, and that this year the schools will have a nearly 4 million dollar surplus. 

Yet during the strike, the school committee and mayor claimed that paying us 14% COLAs over four years rather than 12% over four years would cause severe cuts in staffing. Yet the costs of the additional 2% in COLA over four years were nearly identical to the amount of money they were secretly holding in reserve.

Negotiations, whether positional or interest based, depend on trust, and trust is built upon honesty and full disclosure. Under circumstances in which the school committee and mayor have shown themselves fully willing to mislead the public and the NTA, interest based bargaining would simply put the NTA at a disadvantage. We would be required to put our trust in a negotiations partner that has proven itself untrustworthy. 

To my ear, Anna Nolin's and Chris Brezski's public advocacy for interest based bargaining sounds like more of what we have been hearing for the last 17 months--public posturing and manipulation. They are proposing a type of negotiations, which, on the surface, sounds appealing, in order to manipulate the public into thinking that, if the NTA refuses to agree to this type of bargaining, we will be the reason for any future conflictual negotiations. 

When the school committee comes forward and says that they want to put class size limits, mental health supports, and improved coverage into the contract, then we can talk about interest based bargaining. When the school committee comes forward and says they are willing to provide real cost of living adjustments to our salaries, then we can talk about interest based bargaining. When the school committee comes forward and says they want to return autonomy to educators to make professional decisions, to provide the supports we say we need for our students, to treat us with respect and dignity, then we can talk about interest based bargaining. Until that happens, calling for interest based bargaining is just posturing.

I put my trust the NTA, and in our solidarity. 

In solidarity,

Mike Zilles, President

Newton Teachers Association



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