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Teacher's Unions and Collective Bargaining: Resolving Conflicts

Exclusivity and Good Faith in Bargaining Agreement

Once a union has been elected, both public and private school boards are bound to deal exclusively with that union. The elected union must bargain for the collective interests of the members of the bargaining unit. Both the school district and the union representing teachers must bargain in good faith. The duty of parties to bargain in good faith is important in the collective bargaining process, since negotiations between school districts and unions can become intense and heated.

Interpretations of the term "good faith" under the National Labor Relations Act typically focus on openness, fairness, mutuality of conduct, and cooperation between parties. Many state statutes define "good faith" similarly, though some states provide more specific guidance regarding what constitutes good faith bargaining. Some states also provide a list of examples that are deemed instances of bargaining in bad faith. Refusal to negotiate in good faith constitutes an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act and many state statutes.

Terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement

Most state statutes do not require schools to bargain on issues involving the educational policy of the school board. Many states require school boards and unions to bargain on "wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment." Some states limit bargaining to such mandatory issues as benefits, insurance, or sick leave. When a state statute includes mandatory subjects, these subjects must be bargained over at the request of either the school board or the teachers' union. If either party refuses to negotiate over a mandatory subject, state statutes generally deem this a refusal to negotiate in good faith and, thus, an unfair labor practice.

In the absence of statutory language specifying the scope of collective bargaining, teacher unions and school boards must consult relevant case law in that state to determine if the courts have set forth parameters. Other limitations to collective bargaining may also be present. A collective bargaining agreement, for example, cannot violate or contradict existing statutory law or constitutional provisions. Similarly, the collective bargaining agreement should recognize contract rights that may already exist through other agreements.


Negotiations may fail to lead to a completed agreement between a teachers' union and a school board. When good faith efforts fail to resolve the dispute or disputes between the parties, a legal impasse occurs. At the time impasse occurs, active bargaining between the parties is usually suspended.

Parties usually go through a series of options once an impasse has occurred, though public and private school teachers' options may differ. The first step after an impasse is declared is usually mediation. When parties employ a mediator, the mediator acts as a neutral third party to assist the two sides in reaching a compromise. Mediators lack power to make binding decisions, and they are employed only as advisors. Many state statutes require use of mediators in the public sector upon declaration of an impasse. Private sector unions and schools may employ a federal mediator, though federal labor laws do not prescribe further options regarding dispute resolution.

If mediation fails, many state statutes require the parties to employ a fact-finder, who analyzes the facts of the bargaining process and seeks to recognize a potential compromise. The parties are not bound by the recommendations of the fact-finder, though it may influence public opinion regarding the appropriate resolution of the dispute. The recommendations are particularly influential in the public sector, where the school board is a government body consisting of elected officials, and teachers and other staff are public employees. However, this step in the process may not bring resolution to the dispute. In some states, fact-finding is the final stage of impasse resolution, leaving the parties to bargain among themselves.

A third option is arbitration, though this is generally only employed in the public education sector. An arbitrator is a third party who performs functions similar to a fact-finder, yet the arbitrator's decision is binding on both parties. In several states, arbitration is permissive, meaning parties may submit their dispute to an arbitrator after fact-finding if they so desire. Some states mandate use of binding arbitration, often as an alternative to the right to strike.


If efforts for impasse resolution fail between a teachers' union and a school district, teachers may choose to strike to persuade or coerce the board to meet the demands of the union. A lockout by an employer is the counterpart to a strike. The right to strike in the private sector is guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act. However, only about half of the states have extended this right to teachers in the public sector. These states usually limit this right under the respective labor laws. Where teachers do not have the right to strike, state laws often impose monetary or similar penalties on those who strike illegally.

In states where strikes are permitted in the public sector, teachers often must meet several conditions prior to the strike. For example, a state may require that a bargaining unit has been certified properly, that methods for impasse resolution have been exhausted, that any existing collective bargaining agreement has expired, and that the union has provided sufficient notice to the school board. The purpose of such conditions is to give the parties an opportunity to avoid a strike, which is usually unpopular with both employers and employees.

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