Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Magical Employee Handbook

It’s no surprise that Tennessee joined other Republican-controlled states in attacking teachers’ unions, sparking thousands of teachers to rally at the state capitol in early March. It’s no surprise that those protests fell on deaf ears.

What is a surprise is that the legislature responded with an even more radical plan, which would end the right of teachers to form unions at all:
House Speaker Beth Harwell and key lawmakers have agreed to completely repeal the 1978 law that gave teachers the ability to unionize, casting aside an earlier compromise that would have let them continue to negotiate with school boards over a few issues.

But fear not: replacing the teachers unions will be, I shit you not, “employee handbooks.” Oh goody!

The agreement would replace negotiated teachers’ contracts with an employee handbook updated every three years that spells out the district’s policies on salary, benefits, leave, student discipline and working conditions — matters that currently are set through union negotiations.

Additional language would give districts broader authority to set policies for merit pay and classroom assignments.

School boards would be barred from negotiating contracts with the teachers union. Instead, teachers would be allowed to submit written comments and speak at an open hearing on the handbook.

Oh, right, an open hearing, gosh we’ve all seen how effective those are! I mean gosh, if thousands of people descending on the state capitol in angry protest won’t sway the Tennessee State Legislature, what makes anyone think submitting written comments and speaking at an open hearing will sway a school board?

I’m trying to think how speaking at an open hearing on an employee handbook is truly “the best of both worlds,” in the words of Rep. Debra Maggart, House Republican Caucus chair. Exactly how is an employee handbook written by your employer a substitute for bargaining rights? I guess you have to live in that Republican alternate universe where free market ponies shit fairy dust for any of this to make sense.

Well, why don’t we replace all contracts with a “handbook,” then? I mean really, if it’s such a brilliant idea for our kids, why not? Let’s have a handbook instead of state contracts, and then when someone doesn’t finish repaving that highway on time, we can say, “oooh you’re in violation of our handbook and we’re gonna ... um ... hmm ... never mind!” I mean really, that’s just the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Is an employee handbook even legally binding?

Here’s the thing. Teachers’ working conditions are our kids’ learning conditions. Shouldn’t the people who are in that classroom every day be the best judge of what those learning conditions need to be?

And here’s another thing: why in the world would anyone want to be a teacher in Tennessee under conditions like this? Wouldn’t you want to teach somewhere else, where you’re not treated like school board chattle?

Perhaps the best solution to all of our problems is to get more progressives to run for local office, including school board. It’s something the Teanutties are already doing; progressives need to get on board or we’ll have more rights taken away and replaced by boneheaded ideas like “employee handbooks.”