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Collective bargaining in the classroom

Photo by Christopher Huang

Interest-based collective bargaining with teachers unions could play an important role in improving education and closing the achievement gap in Massachusetts public schools, according to a new report on public sector labor-management reform.

Barry Bluestone, the founding dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Thomas A. Kochan coauthored “Toward a Grand New Bargain: Collaborative Approaches to Labor-Management Reform in Massachusetts.” The report was sponsored by The Boston Foundation.

“The goal is to improve K through 12 education,” said Bluestone, who served as a “proud member of the United Auto Workers union” in the 1960s. “To that end, we need to make sure that teachers, superintendents and principals are fully engaged in that effort.”

The new approach to labor-management relations in the Commonwealth’s public schools would replace detailed work rules in complex contracts with a system of continuous problem solving through joint decision-making, Bluestone said.

“When there is a problem, the parties will resolve it instead of codifying it in the next contract in language that, over time, creates a dense web of rules and inflexibility,” Bluestone explained.

“Old style bargaining is based on conflict and give and take,” he added. “Interest-based bargaining would allow both sides to explore their interests and find out where they coincide.”

The labor-management reform plan, which may include compensation and performance-based pay practices for teachers, would feature a statewide academy to train union leaders, school superintendents and school committee members in interest-based bargaining. A pilot program for at least one school district may be up and running within the next three to six months, Bluestone said.

Education stakeholders, such as teachers, parents and principals, would also be granted access to an online Massachusetts Learning Network, where interested parties could share common experiences.

“The online system would allow us to very quickly distribute our best practices across the state,” Bluestone said. “It would be a way of making sure people used the latest and best information in designing their own interest-based bargaining systems.”

Bluestone hopes to apply a modified version of those collective bargaining strategies to resolve labor-management conflict among other state employees, such as firefighters and police officers.

He praised Northeastern for conducting such groundbreaking applied community-based research. “We are really engaged with the community and have a passion for solving critical problems that face society,” he said. “Northeastern is one of the leading universities in the country devoted to this kind of work.”