D-64 – Teachers Union Bargaining A Broken System


Once upon a time public sector employment in the State of Illinois was generally – with certain notable exceptions – less coveted than private sector employment. 

The private sector generally paid better.  It generally offered better pension and health benefits.  And it usually provided more stability than the public sector, where the political whims of certain elected or appointed officials could derail the careers of the competent-but-unconnected because “who you knew” usually meant more in the public sector than what you knew.

But public-sector employment has become the place to go if you want good pay, great benefits, plenty of time off, early retirement, minimal accountability, and job security.  One reason is because, while private-sector employment has become increasingly susceptible to the vagaries of competition and a world labor market, public employment is effectively insulated from those same vagaries. 

Just as significantly, many of our politicians – especially those who aspire to become career politicians – figured out that pandering to public employees and the unions that represent them could facilitate those aspirations. That has created a political-legal landscape which places the taxpayers at risk of being fleeced every time one of their governmental bodies enters into negotiations with a public employee union. 

As we’ve seen even in our sleepy little burg, public-sector unions seem to consistently outfox the City’s well-paid negotiators and their even better-paid outside labor lawyers who “specialize” in public-sector matters and have learned from years of experience what kind of wage and benefit increases they can give away while keeping the politicians sedated, the public somnolent, and the legal fees rolling in.

That’s one big reason why public employee wages have continued to increase by percentages that often exceed both the cost of living and what their private-sector peers get.  Public-sector pension and health benefits have become the envy of those very private-sector folks who are footing the bill for those benefits while trying to figure out how to keep their own 401(k)s from becoming 41(k)s.  And let’s not forget all those holidays and other days off (MLK’s Birthday, Casimir Pulaski Day…) that most private-sector employees haven’t enjoyed since grammar school.

As if that weren’t enough, the chances that our teachers and our police and fire personnel might get fired, or see their jobs moved to another state or outsourced to Mexico, are virtually non-existent.

All of which is an admittedly longish lead-in to our question: What’s going on with the teacher negotiations over at Park Ridge-Niles Elementary School District 64?

D-64 gets a full one-third, and then some, of our property tax payments, but it may be the most adept of all our local governmental bodies in avoiding serious scrutiny and keeping meaningful information under wraps.  Heck, it didn’t even start videotaping its meetings until last summer, 3 years after the City started and more than a decade after the Park District initiated that practice.

As we understand it, the current contract between D-64 and the teachers union – benignly calling itself the “Park Ridge Education Association” (“PREA”) because, presumably, something with “education” in it is much more marketable than “teachers union” – expires this summer.  Yet from what we hear the negotiations haven’t even begun.

From the perspective of bargaining strategy and tactics, that already gives a 15-love advantage to the PREA – because the closer it can drag out the negotiations to the beginning of the next school year, the better the odds of its being able to stampede D-64 parents and the lightweight D-64 School Board majority into wage and benefit concessions so as to ensure that the schools open on time; or, in other words, to avoid any teacher strike that might play havoc with the work and social schedules of so many D-64 parents.

And that delay also earns PREA a 30-love advantage by eliminating lay-offs (or “RIF”s, in school district parlance) as a D-64 bargaining tool.  That’s because, as we understand it, staffing decisions for next school year effectively became locked in as of April 1 – meaning that every teacher staffing position provided for at that time is guaranteed for next school year.

Although lay-offs have more power in negotiations with police and fire employees whose statutory collective bargaining process includes mandatory binding arbitration if agreement can’t be reached, the threat of layoffs can still be a powerful reality check when employee demands become unreasonable or onerous.  The PREA’s ability to delay the negotiations beyond the lay-off deadline, however, took that tool out of D-64’s toolbox.

But where the PREA takes game, set and match is the provision it was able to finagle into the current contract (and possibly previous ones) that requires secrecy about the negotiations until the parties reach a tentative agreement or formal impasse – the same kind of bargaining arrangement that Park Ridge City Mgr. Jim Hock and both the City’s regular and labor attorneys tried to sucker the City Council into adopting as Hock’s ridiculous Council Policy No. 8. 

Being able to insist on “secret” collective bargaining not only enables but actually emboldens the unions to make outrageous demands, knowing that the public won’t hear about those demands until after the deal is done, if ever.  In closed sessions, union negotiators can be uncompromising, dismissive and even belligerent with impunity, and then put on their very best “Eddie Haskell” persona when they finally emerge into public view.

For teachers, that persona is the well-burnished “for the kids” trope; for police and fire personnel, it’s the heroic “first responders” image.  Either way, those personae have been crafted to appeal to, and to exploit, the ignorance, the naivete, and the goodwill of the average taxpaying citizen.  And it’s those personae that have greased the way for the growth in public-sector wages and benefits to where they have become unsustainable.

But don’t expect the public employees, their unions, or most of our politicians to do anything about it…other than to continue to hide what they’re doing from the taxpayers until the deals are done.

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11 comments so far

Agreed that secret negotiations and other stunts that short-circuit accountability have to go — but please say you don’t really believe that private sector employment is a miserable deal because their bosses are “increasingly susceptible to the vagaries of competition and a world labor market.” Occam’s Razor says the far likelier scenario is that the private sector’s big players did a far better job of paying off the politicians. Anything that reduces bottom-line profits (which as you know are at record highs now) to benefit employees is “anti-job-growth.” And employees aren’t even “resources” let alone “human.” Resources you conserve. We need to get our money’s worth out of the public sector and be rigorous about demanding it. But making these linchpins of civil life struggle like most of the rest of us is not a long-term solution.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you want a MSNBC/Al Sharpton/Ed Schultz “fair-share lean-forward” v. Fox/Sean Hannity/Bill O’Reilly “class-warfare” debate, go to the “entertainment” cable channels 64 and 66 and watch those buffoons have at it.

I like your positions on transparency, but I never gave much thought about it in the realm of labor negotiations. I have to say I can’t really argue with you on this becausse it makes a lot of sense to let the public see and hear how its employees, on both sides of the table, are handling themselves.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Actually, that’s too bad – because we’d like to hear what arguments might be made for continuing to conduct secret public employee negotiations in closed session. Oh well, maybe the next commentator….

Slightly off topic but I read that Roosevelt School wants a racing track there.

Why? What makes them so special?

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re guessing: (a) the have the land for it; and (b) they asked for it. But that shouldn’t necessarily mean that they get it.

I believe the Roosevelt parents raised the money for the track. Not sure why the Board said no.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Maybe the parents should have cleared it with the Board before they raised the money.

If what you are saying is true, why does D-64 or any of our other local gov’ts let it continue?

EDITOR’S NOTE: You might want to re-read the post and then see if you can answer that one yourself.

A racing track? What — will they compete with Arlington?

EDITOR’S NOTE: C’mon FWT, let’s stay on topic here. Besides, whether or not Roosevelt has an outdoor track is virtually meaningless in the grand scheme of local government, D-64 government, or the quality of education.

As someone who has been to the negotiating table representing management at one company and the union at another company, negotiations should be kept out of public view.

First of all, in negotiations, every thing, and I mean every thing is fair game. Every greivance, every conflict, every issue can and will be discussed. That part of negotiations is very tedious. Some of it can be embarrassing to either side.

Secondly, negotiations should not be made public as this is between the union and those that are to represent the best interests of the community. When you have both sides negotiating in good faith, you will eventually come to an acceptable outcome. If the negotiations were in the public eyes, the process becomes more of a spectacle, and the best interests of both sides become secondary to the notion of how it appears in public.

Here is a comparison. When cameras are put in court, the appearance of each side becomes as important as whether the trial is fair or not. Open negotiations presents the same problems.

Another reason: when private companies negotiate with unions, they keep it behind close doors. When publically traded companies negotiate with unions, most of it is behind close doors. Why should public employees have to be held to a different standard?

For example: I own stock in a publically traded company that has unions. I am a share holder and therefore an owner. I don’t want or need to know how negotiations are proceeding. I want to know the outcome, but not the actual details of the process.

Here is another reason: Other school districts to not have transparent negotiations. Why, if I was a union employee would I want me union representatives to negotiate in the public eye? I can go elsewhere and have privacy. Why, if I represent the other side to I want to have the daily critique of how I am doing?

Before negotiations are finalized both sides have to make sure that their sides will approve the outcome: a vote by union members and a agreement by management (or whomever). You will not get agreement if everything is in public because each side will shoot down items before reaching a negotiated agreement.

Finally, like it the card game of poker, you don’t want to show your cards. It is called a negotiation because sometimes each side has to compromise. You can’t have compromise if you do not have the power to represent you position. The public forum eliminates your power to represent because everyone is than participating in a process that undercuts your position.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Apparently experience isn’t always the best teacher.

No Illinois law requires secret, closed-session labor negotiations. Much of what passes for government is “tedious,” yet it’s open to the public. Frankly, we can’t conceive of something “embarrassing” being the subject of collective bargaining, but if some such thing came up, both sides could agree to briefly adjourn to “closed session.”

“Good faith” has nothing to do with open or closed-session bargaining. Good-faith bargaining is mandatory under the law, so that’s a bogus, red-herring issue. So is your analogy of public-sector negotiations to court proceedings which, irrespective of the presence or absence of cameras, ARE open to the public and the press.

Are you really saying that union employees would give up employment here and go somewhere else solely in order to have privacy in the collective bargaining of their contracts? If so, it’s so ridiculous that, as Wolfgang Pauling once said: “That’s not even wrong!”

We tried to fit your closing comment (“The public forum eliminates your power to represent because everyone is than participating in a process that undercuts your position”) into the “not even wrong” column but, frankly, that comment isn’t even lucid enough to qualify.

The best evidence against all your business-as-usual arguments, and against the current system of secret closed-session labor negotiations, is the current critical (catastrophic?) state of public-sector wages, benefits, and pensions, which are Exhibits A, B and C for why the current system doesn’t work.

But thanks for writing.

The process can be as open/transparent as you like. If one side or the other chooses not to live up to what they have agreed to (open process or not) you end up with a mess.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Maybe so, but starting out with a “mess” usually guarantees that you’ll end up with one.


I don’t disagree with you – I am all for transparency.

You offered pensions as “exibit c”. I think it is important to note that even if the negotiations for some of the pension numbers were not transparent, the commitments have been known and publicly available for a long time. The state (read politicians) did not live up to what they committed to.

Open process or not, choosing to do this over an extended period of time leads to the same place – a HUGELY underfunded pension system.

Teachers at Maine South pay nothing on the employee pension payment of 9.4%…the District pays it all. Ironically, this payment counts towards the pension cancellation so the district pays 9.4% on the 9.4 % so the toal is 10.3% and the pension eventually comes out higher which the tax payers pay. They pay less than 1% into an Insurance fund and the district pays up to 95-100% of the cost of health, disability and dental on a single’s policy. If they strike, the teachers make up the days lost at the new wages…the final indignity. Wages are negotiated in private . The step increase, which is considered an entitlement, and the cost of living always add up to 6-7% per year, but management keeps that hidden by only talking about the cost of living Management, who negotiates, also benefits from the union gains and peace. Teachers feel that they are essential employees, therefore they should be put in the same category as police and fire…no strike. That is the only way to level the playing the field.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The problem with “no strike” is that it comes with mandatory binding arbitration. And, thanks to decades of union-beholden Democrats controlling Springfield (led by Mike Madigan, with at least 2 ankle-grabbing Republican governors, “Big Jim” Thompson and “Big George” Ryan, as knowing accomplices), we have an arbitration system that is extremely pro-union; and a court review process that is extremely deferential to whatever the arbitrators and Illinois Department of Labor Relations decides. Given that decidedly non-level alternative, we’ll take the risk of strikes and trust the citizenry to either support or oppose them.

The poster who went to the trouble to explain the process of negotiation has a good point from Planet Reality, altho it doesn’t fit your usual black-and-white thinking. People in negotiations will not be politically able to compromise if their constituents and the opposition’s are hanging on their every word. Surely you’ve gone to court — another public enterprise — and have observed and participated in conversations in the judge’s chambers that resulted in deals that move the process to a completion both sides can live with. What the public needs is not public scrutiny of every face-saving, posturing, Judge Ito-esque moment of a negotiation but to elect, hire and support negotiators who are foresquare on the taxpayers’ side.

EDITOR’S NOTE: You’re confusing “Planet Reality” with Fantasy Island.

The fatal flaw in your position is the implied premise that it’s a good thing for our public officials to “politically…compromise” the public purse in labor negotiations. It’s not and never has been, because – as is painfully obvious from the public-sector employment crisis this state is now facing – generations of public negotiators have proven themselves totally unwilling or incapable of being “foresquare on the taxpayers’ side,” something they and the unions have become adept at concealing from the taxpayers with the help of closed session negotiating.

It should be incumbent on our public officials to determine, in the normal course of open-session debate during the budget process, compensation that is fair to both the employees and the taxpayers. And then they should stick to that unless and until the unions – in the course of open-session bargaining in full view of the taxpayers – can make a compelling case for something else. That way, the taxpayers can see and hear the union’s and the government’s respective position(s) and determine for themselves who is being reasonable, and whether they (the taxpayers) are being capably represented by their “negotiators.”

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