Negotiating or re-negotiating contracts is an important and potentially stressful situation nearly everyone faces at some point. Recent contract negotiations between the Seattle school district and the Seattle Education Association (SEA) ended in an agreement right before a deadline that would have led to a teachers’ strike. Both sides had their demands.
As the Seattle Times reports, the school district wanted, among other things, to maintain the current test-based aspect of teacher performance and to add thirty minutes to elementary-school teachers’ work days to match those of other teachers. While the teachers’ union, on the other hand, wanted a pay increase and to take test scores out of teachers’ evaluations. Negotiations became contentious and a mediator was requested. In the end, both parties made compromises, which is common in any negotiation. Teachers will get an increase in pay, but test scores will continue to be an indicator for more in depth performance evaluations and elementary-school teachers will add thirty minutes of work on to their daily schedules. Both sides won with reforms to the special education program and, most importantly, Seattle’s children started school on schedule.
This contract negotiation involved the school district and a union composed of nearly 3,000 teachers. Washington has one the highest union membership rates in the country, which means that these large scale contract negotiations are nothing new to the state. These publicized negotiations are good illustration of what contracts contain and what each party has at stake when going into an employment situation. Unions both negotiate contracts and handle contract disputes for its members. This provides union members with greater bargaining power, which generally means better income. However it also means that not all members will agree with the contract they get; for example, in the Seattle Times article which reported that nearly forty percent of the teachers’ union members wanted to continue negotiating at the time the agreement was reached.
“Right to work” Laws
Proposed legislation would make Washington a “right to work” state. “Right to work” laws stop unions from adding a requirement of union membership, payment of union dues, and other fees on anyone who wanted to work at a certain company, which means that individual employees may negotiate their own contracts with companies. Negotiating as an individual, in effect, reverses the benefits and drawbacks of unions: reduced bargaining power, but each individual can negotiate until satisfied. Even though Washington has not passed “right to work” laws, the vast majority of employees working in Washington are not members of a union and will still have to negotiate and dispute employment agreements individually.
Employment agreements set out the rights of both the employer and the employee. As the teachers’ contract shows, these agreements will direct the course of employment, wages, and potentially benefits. Experienced employment lawyers can assist in drafting employment agreements, reviewing agreements, and handling contract and agreement disputes.