House Minority Leader Don Turner, left, presses House Speaker Shap Smith for assurance that a teacher strike bill will reach the House floor next week. Bill sponsor Rep. Kurt Wright is between them.
The House committee that oversees labor issues voted 5-3 along party lines Friday against proposed legislation that would prohibit teacher strikes in Vermont. Although a negative committee vote typically kills a bill, H.76 will nonetheless be considered next week by the full House. It previously passed the House Education Committee by a vote of 8 to 3.
Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) sponsored the bill that would ban teacher strikes and levy a 1-cent tax rate increase on districts that fail to reach a contract agreement after a year. This week he won assurance from House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) that the full House would consider the bill.
The floor debate promises to be a lively one.
“I think we should give the body a chance to debate this,” Rep. Job Tate (R-Mendon) said, just before voting to support the bill in the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee.
“I am really struggling with prohibiting the right to strike,” said Rep. Gabrielle Lucke (D-Hartford), who voted against it.
“I’m baffled by this 1-cent tax. Why punish the taxpayers?” said Rep. Tommy Walz (D-Barre). He also voted against H.76.
A full House vote next week will put legislators on the spot. Teacher strikes are unpopular with the public, but the teachers' union strongly opposes banning them. In a year when the House's Democratic majority has already ticked off the teachers' union with a school consolidation bill, members might be wary of piling on.
“I do understand that strikes can be very difficult on communities,” said House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee chair Helen Head (D-South Burlington). Vermont's most recent teacher strike last fall was in her school district.
But Head said she couldn’t support removing the strike option. Head said previously that she and others in South Burlington viewed it as an effective tool in reaching an agreement.
Gov. Peter Shumlin, who last fall said teacher strikes should be banned, declined to say Friday whether he supports this bill, though it appears to strike the right balance as he's described it. "I support the right teachers' strike bill," Shumlin said. "If one side gives up the ability to strike, the other side should give up the ability to impose a contract." Wright's bill does not allow school boards to impose contracts.
The Vermont National Education Association union strongly opposes H.76. The Vermont School Boards Association supports it.