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Unions split on teacher seniority

Several promise to battle deal struck by one

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / June 9, 2012
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Opening a rift in the state ­labor movement, several leading unions vowed Friday to fight a new agreement backed by the state’s largest teachers union that would allow managers to prioritize teacher evaluations over seniority when making school staffing decisions.

The unions, however, are in a difficult position in trying to stop the deal. If it does not pass the Legislature by July 3, Stand for Children, an advocacy group that brokered the agreement with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, has said it will place a more sweeping initiative on the ­November ballot, which polls indicate is likely to pass.

But several unions said they are determined to battle it regard­less, setting the stage for a potentially divisive fight in the closing days of the legislative session. The deal has the tentative backing of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese ­Murray, although Governor ­Deval Patrick has declined to weigh in.

In a statement released Friday, the AFL-CIO of Massachusetts urged legislators to reject the deal, calling it an “attack on collective bargaining rights for teachers.”

The American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts also denounced the agreement as “extreme legislation” that ­“ignores the experience and proven expertise of Massachusetts’ most trusted teachers.”

The Boston Teachers Union, which is part of the federation, said, “It’s regrettable that outside corporate interests — such as Bain Capital and the Walton Foundation, chief funders of Stand for Children — can have such an outsized influence on setting educational policy.”

The association, however, said it would rather give up some of its members’ seniority protections in exchange for Stand for Children agreeing to drop the more stringent ballot question.

“We think the alternative legislation is much better for our teachers and our students and will ­allow us to avoid an expensive and divisive ballot initiative in the fall,” said Paul ­Toner, the association president.

The split, in part, reflects how Toner has at times struck a more conciliatory tone than the more combative president of the Boston Teachers Union, Richard Stutman.

It also reflects whom the unions represent: the MTA represents more suburban districts, where seniority is not as critical to teachers because their schools are far less likely to be restructured or closed. In Boston, where the union represents some 5,000 teachers, ­seniority protections are zealously guarded because city schools are more likely to be ­reorganized, forcing teachers to be transferred or dismissed.

“It’s in the larger urban districts where you see more layoffs, where you see more movement of teachers in the district, where seniority is a more relevant concept to teachers in their everyday life,” said ­Morgaen L. Donaldson, a professor of education at the University of Connecticut and a former Boston Teachers Union member who helped found the Boston Arts Academy. “Whereas, if you’re talking to a teacher in Lincoln, seniority is not ­going to be a big deal.”

The MTA’s decision to compromise rather than gird for a ballot fight, Donaldson said, ­also underscores the broader pressures facing unions.

Those pressures were cast into stark relief when Governor Scott Walker >of Wisconsin easily survived a recall vote Tuesday, dealing a blow to unions that hoped to oust him for slashing collective bargaining rights. Even in traditionally labor-­friendly Massachusetts, unions suffered a setback last year when Patrick approved a law limiting workers’ power to bargain over their health care.

“It highlights this conundrum that unions are facing now, where the public discourse has shifted and become more critical of unions,” said Donaldson.

Christine Mulroney, a teacher in Waltham, said many teachers are unhappy with the plan, but feel it is necessary. “If we’re not in the process of change, we will become the problem,” she said. “The only way is to come up with a compromise.”

If approved, the agreement would make seniority a secondary, rather than primary, consideration in school staffing decisions. Supporters say that would make it easier to dismiss ineffective teachers and retain those who perform well. Critics argue the changes would threaten veteran teachers who work with the most challenging students.

The staffing changes would not take effect until the 2016-2017 school year, but they would be ­imposed automatically and would not require ratification by local unions. The unions would, however, be able to negotiate the criteria for making layoff decisions, as long as teacher evaluations take precedence over seniority.

School districts would receive an additional $13 million to help them prepare for the new teacher evaluations that will guide staffing decisions.

“Here in Boston, we agree that principals and headmasters need to be able to pick the right teams for their school, regardless of seniority,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a statement. “This legislation is what we have been pushing for with our union, but have been unable to implement because they continue to hold it up as a bargaining chip, instead of allow­ing us to move forward in what we all agree is best for the education of our children.”

Stutman said his members are “relatively disgusted” by the proposal.

It is not clear, however, whether legislators will heed union complaints. Senator Kenneth J. Donnelly, a former union firefighter, said labor groups will have to produce compelling reasons why legislators should reject a deal that has the backing of the 110,000-member Teachers Association.

“I would think the MTA wouldn’t do something that wasn’t in the best interests of their teachers, if they could prevent it,” said Donnelly, an ­Arlington Democrat. “They fight hard for their members.”

Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a former teacher who is cochairwoman of the Education Committee, said she supported the deal. “Both sides deserve a lot of credit for coming to the table and hashing out a final product that keeps the best interests of students at heart,” she said.

Globe correspondent Jaclyn Reiss contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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