Collective bargaining refers to the regular, district-level negotiations of teacher representatives (labor) and district representatives (management) regarding salary, working conditions, and terms of employment. The result is a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), commonly called a union contract that covers all teachers, whether or not they are union members.
Collective bargaining has a relatively short history in U.S. education; it has been common practice for only about 40 years. The National Labor Relations Act broadly governs collective bargaining. Approximately 33 states legislatively define collective bargaining—whether it is mandatory, optional, or prohibited; who can be covered by a CBA; which issues are negotiable; and actions to take if an agreement cannot be reached. Most states limit the scope of bargaining to wages, hours, and other conditions of employment such as health benefits, vacation time, and pension plans. Sometimes states are divided into two groups—union and “right to work.” However, a “right to work” state simply means that CBAs are prevented from requiring workers to support and share the costs of union representation.
There is not a great deal of difference between collective bargaining states and noncollective bargaining states in terms of teacher wages, conditions of employment, etc. Most researchers agree that states and districts without collective bargaining have preemptively adopted legislation, policies, and practices bargained elsewhere.
Although CBAs have received a great deal of blame from education reformers as impediments to educational change, the reality is not that straightforward. The National Center for Teaching Quality (NCTQ), after developing TR3, a large database of union contracts, found that unions are a key factor in the policies that are applied to teachers. However, they argue that those interested in reform ought to look first at state laws, which set the stage for collective bargaining agreements and, in many cases, codify the policies—such as teacher tenure and evaluation—that frustrate reformers.