By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE (Reuters) - Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed into law Wednesday a bill repealing a 1978 measure mandating collective bargaining for public school teachers.
The new law creates new rules for teacher negotiations on salary and other issues, which union representatives said will make it harder for teachers to advocate for themselves.
"For years upon years, one union has thwarted the progress of education in Tennessee," said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, in a statement. "Reform after reform has been refused or dismantled. The barrier that has prevented us from putting the best possible teacher in every classroom will soon be removed."
While conceding that the legislation is a defeat for the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association, Jerry Winters, the union's government relations director, takes issue with the Ramsey terming the bill a blanket repeal.
"I think Lt. Gov. Ramsey is beating his chest for political reasons," says Winters. "The fact is, there still is going to be an opportunity for teachers to be involved in their working situations."
The law makes several changes to the way teachers negotiate. Collective bargaining is now called "collaborative conferencing," and will use 7 to 11 teacher representatives, rather than a union representative, to hash out terms with local school boards.
Winters said the process will create a "bureaucratic quagmire" because it will be so difficult to get members to agree before they get to a school board.
The collective bargaining bill also removes payroll deductions for union dues if that money is to be used for political purposes.
Both Ramsey and Haslam are Republicans. Winters said the actions of the Republican-majority legislature may mean trouble for them in future elections. "There are hundreds of teachers in those legislative districts," Winters said. "They have family, they have friends and they vote."
Tennessee has also passed other education-related bills in this legislative session, including one that extends the number of years it takes to win tenure.
Other states with Republican majorities have aimed blows at public worker collective bargaining this year, including Wisconsin and Ohio.
Both states put limits on collective bargaining for public workers. The Wisconsin bill was blocked by a judge for improper process. The Ohio law has not yet taken effect, and opponents are gathering signatures to put it on the November ballot as a referendum.
(Reporting by Tim Ghianni; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune)