Op-Ed: Teacher union bosses’ monopoly powers are putting South Dakota schools at risk

(The Center Square) – Today, more than 30 states have laws on the books empowering government union bosses to speak for all employees in a unionized school, even those who choose not to join the…

(The Center Square) – Today, more than 30 states have laws on the books empowering government union bosses to speak for all employees in a unionized school, even those who choose not to join the union, in discussions with the employer over pay, benefits and work rules.

Big Labor insists that corralling teachers, teacher aides, guidance counselors, food service workers, janitors, and other K-12 employees who don’t belong to a union, and don’t want to, under union monopoly bargaining is “for their own good.”

But this is often obviously untrue. The fact is, as attorneys then representing 10 independent-minded teacher plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association explained in a September 2015 brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the officers of unions like the mammoth National Education Association (NEA) and its subsidiaries “advocate numerous policies that affirmatively harm [many] teachers.”

To illustrate the point, the brief went on to quote directly from the NEA Handbook: “NEA considers any ‘system of compensation based on an evaluation of an education employee’s performance’ to be ‘inappropriate’ and ‘opposes providing additional compensation to attract and or retain education employees in hard-to-recruit positions.’”

Teachers who “care more about rewarding merit than protecting mediocre teachers” should “oppose these policies,” the plaintiffs continued in the brief. And “teachers who specialize in difficult subjects (like chemistry and or physics), but are trapped in union-obtained pay systems that stop them from out-earning gym teachers,” should also oppose such policies.

Today, South Dakota’s government education system, and especially Sioux Falls, the state’s largest school district, are offering powerful examples of how union monopolies routinely undercut the interests of nonprofessional support employees as well as teachers.

South Dakota school districts, like countless other public and private employers across the country, are currently having to deal with workforce shortages. Many economists expect this challenge to continue growing over the coming months. To keep their schools running safely and efficiently, education officials say they need flexibility to increase wages and benefits, as well as offer special incentives, to attract and retain employees for all kinds of K-12 jobs.

But the fact is, under the Mount Rushmore State’s government-sector monopoly bargaining law, Sioux Falls and other school districts have very little flexibility. They can’t increase starting wages and salaries to attract prospective new employees without getting union bosses’ permission first. And Big Labor normally won’t acquiesce to pay increases for certain school positions without simultaneous increases in pay for multiple other jobs, even if the district is having no trouble recruiting qualified staff for those jobs. Such demands are often financially impossible to meet.

As a consequence of union monopoly bargaining, vital K-12 jobs often go unfilled for years, or they are filled by staff who don’t have the knowledge and/or training to do them. In Nebraska, teacher union bosses went all the way to the state Supreme Court to block a school district from paying a professional carpenter $24,000 a year instead of $21,000 a year to teach shop. When Nebraska’s High Court ruled against the carpenter and his employer, union lawyer Mark McGuire hailed the decision as a “victory for collective bargaining!”

After being alerted about their dire hiring outlook by Sioux Falls School District Business Manager Todd Vik and other education officials, state Rep. Bethany Soye (R-Sioux Falls) attempted early this year to address the problem by introducing legislation (H.B.1216) that would abolish Big Labor’s monopoly-bargaining power over employees of K-12 government schools in South Dakota.

Instantly, a ferocious lobbying blitz led by the hierarchy of the NEA-affiliated South Dakota Education Association (SDEA) union targeted H.B.1216 for defeat. Without ever having to justify their organizational stance against providing “additional compensation to attract and/or retain education employees in hard-to-recruit positions,” SDEA kingpins quickly beat back H.B.1216. On Feb. 2, Ms. Soye withdrew it.

The best that reformers of school labor policy in South Dakota can now hope for this year is passage of legislation allowing school districts to offer one-time bonuses to nonprofessional staff without getting union bosses’ permission first. A similar tweak to the monopoly-bargaining law was adopted for teachers in 2015.

The current proposal (H.B.1308) will do little to help education officials in South Dakota allocate taxpayer dollars to further the interests of schoolchildren, their parents, and other ordinary taxpayers, rather than those of a handful of union bosses. But government union chiefs undoubtedly realize that the debate is only beginning. Monopoly bargaining over South Dakota’s K-12 school employees is no longer safe.