Columnists, Denver, Jon Caldara, Politics

Caldara: Teachers’ union showed true colors in open negotiations

The Denver teachers’ strike ended late last week with a tentative agreement after a productive bargaining session that stretched into the morning hours.

Throughout the negotiations between Denver Public Schools officials and the teachers’ union, we were privy to the offers and counteroffers. In fact, The Denver Post editorial board opined that the union should accept the bonus structure the district wanted to attract teachers to schools in poor neighborhoods, and the district should accept the concession to fire 150 in administrative staff to make room for more teacher pay.

But how did The Post, or any of us, even know what was flying back and forth over the bargaining table? We knew because voters pried open the doors to these previously closed, smoky back rooms.

The most important policy a school board makes is its contract with the teachers’ union. The contract dictates the terms of how most of our children will be taught and how most of our tax money will be spent. In a way it is comparable to the state legislator’s fights over the “long-bill,” the budget bill. That battle plays out in Joint Budget Committee meetings and floor votes and it decides the priorities for the state government.

Of course, when the legislature negotiates the long-bill they do so in open sessions, in full view of the press and any citizen interested enough to watch in person or stream online.

We call it transparency. We demand it.

Colorado’s open meetings laws however never included contract negotiations between school districts and a teachers’ unions. Few ever knew how these decisions were made. So, in 2014 we at the Independence Institute did something about it. We gathered enough signatures to force the question on to the ballot as a citizen’s initiative. The teacher’s union, the Colorado Education Association, and all the organizations that orbit government-run education opposed it.

Still, voters approved Proposition 104 by a jaw-dropping 70 percent “yes” vote.

The issue never needed to go to the ballot box. Over the previous decade, the state legislature had at least five bills to open these negotiations to the public. Not one of those bills even made it out of its first committee hearing.

Stew on that. Seventy percent of voters demanded this kind of basic transparency, yet the state’s public educational industrial complex killed that sunshine, over and over again, before it could even make it to a legislative floor vote.

What was it they didn’t want us to see? The Denver Public School strike may have answered that question.

Some worried that opening contract negotiations to the press and public would incentivize the union to mobilize their foot soldiers, create a massive show of force and intimidate the district’s negotiating team. And that’s exactly what the Denver Classroom Teachers Association did. Well, they tried and it backfired.

At the state Capitol, there are sergeants-at-arms, backed up by state troopers, to make sure activists don’t disrupt the business at hand. The same applies to police (if needed) at city council meetings, courtrooms, school board meetings, all the way down to liquor board meetings.

Impassioned spectators make their opinion know by their mere presence, not the cat-calling, foot-stomping, yelling behavior we saw from Denver teachers, encouraged by the award-winning soap opera performances by their union reps at the bargaining table. The mob descended.

I didn’t work to open up negotiations so mobs could take over.

Go online and check it out for yourself. It will leave any reasonable person concerned to leave their children in the care of those who acted ugly and bullying. None of those teachers would allow that type of behavior in their own classroom.

Keep in mind these are the same teachers who say they want to be called professionals yet demand to be paid like factory workers while they use mob tactics to disrupt negotiations like it was an Occupy Wall Street protest. Perhaps the union muscle believes this bullying at the cost of credibility helped them. Who knows? You can decide. The district’s reps didn’t seem intimidated to me.

Fortunately, those harassing teachers don’t represent all teachers.

Teachers, parents, press, and the forgotten taxpayer should be able to witness this important government process at work. This time around we were treated to a lesson in how the union Goliath likes to act in “good faith.”

Other districts should learn from this debacle of decorum and make sure there are sergeants-at-arms present so the adults in the room can get on with the government’s business.

Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.

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