The state House voted Thursday for a compromise version of the proposal to curtail collective bargaining by public school teachers, setting up a showdown with hard-line Senate Republicans in the last days of the legislative session.
The vote was 59-39, with a handful of moderate Republicans voting no, and the debate lasted four hours.
To end it, House leaders finally limited each representative’s time to speak, first to five minutes and then to only two minutes. When Rep. Gary Odom, D-Nashville, went too long, they cut off his microphone as he still was talking.
“It’s a sad day when we’ve limited debate on such an important issue,” House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh complained. “Why does the majority fear debate? Why is there fear of debate on this issue?”
The House tabled an attempt by Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, to exempt Metro Nashville from the bill, perhaps the most controversial of this year’s session.
“Sixty percent of our teachers belong to a union because they choose to belong to one. This bill actually limits the rights of teachers to associate,” Gilmore told the House.
The House bill continues to allow contract negotiations for base pay and benefits. But it prohibits collective bargaining for merit pay and teacher assignments, among other issues. The Senate-passed bill is an outright repeal of the 1978 law allowing collective bargaining by teachers belonging to the Tennessee Education Association.
The two chambers will try to work out their differences as the legislature moves toward adjournment for the year in the next few days.
“I can tell you, teachers are scared,” said Rep. David Shephard, R-Dickson. “They’re confused and they’re scared, and they’re hurt.”
“The children are even upset about this,” agreed Rep. Kent Williams, I-Elizabethton.
Democrats cast the bill as an attack against teachers. They also contend Republicans are trying to bust the TEA because the union traditionally has allied with Democrats in election campaigns. The TEA represents 52,000 teachers.
“We are demonizing these teachers here,” Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, said. “They are people who have dedicated their lives to our children, your children.”
Rep. Mike McDonald, D-Portland, said teachers have used collective bargaining to negotiate not only for higher pay but for school supplies, lower student-teacher class ratios, safer science labs and classroom cleaning.
“School boards don’t volunteer these things. The teachers have to negotiate for them,” McDonald said. “They’ve had to go and fight with their school board for janitorial services for their classrooms.”
Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, accused the TEA of standing in the way of education reforms. She said no other Southeastern state allows collective bargaining by teachers.
“My mother was a first-grade teacher,” Maggart said. “I can assure every teacher in this great state that I would never do anything to hurt teachers. When people say that we’re doing that, that hurts me because I would never do anything to hurt my mother. The union is about self-interest. They are about promoting what’s best for their members. They are not about promoting what’s best for students.”
Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, criticized the TEA for supporting the National Education Association, which she denounced for favoring public education for the children of illegal immigrants.
“What does that have to do with the success of our children in the classroom?” she asked.
Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville, said, “We are not trying to punish the teachers, absolutely not. For too long, we have allowed the TEA to make education a political battleground in this state. We need to make education about education.”
Rep. Mike Turner, D-Nashville, predicted that, in the upcoming negotiations with the House, senators will insist on an outright repeal of collective bargaining.
“Will you not accept what senators want to do with this bill?” Turner asked Maggart, the bill’s sponsor.
Maggart would promise only “to make this the best bill possible.”