Boston Foundation report examines new framework for collaboration on school bargaining issues

Report lays out fresh approach for future contract talks

October 18, 2011

Download a copy of the report Toward a New Grand Bargain: Collaborative Approaches to Labor-Management Reform in Massachusetts .

Watch this morning's forum online.

Boston – At a time when fiscal crises in states and municipalities throughout the country have put collective bargaining agreements with public sector unions under the spotlight and under fire, , a new Boston Foundation report lays out an alternative framework for contract talks that could provide a “win-win-win” for labor, management and taxpayers.

The report, Toward a New Grand Bargain: Collaborative Approaches to Labor-Management Reform in Massachusetts, presents a new, collaborative approach to the bargaining process in place of the current, adversarial tone of contract negotiations. This latest report in the Understanding Boston series was released at an Understanding Boston Forum at the Boston Foundation on Oct. 19, and featured a panel discussion by  labor union, school and Patrick Administration leaders.

Written by two of Massachusetts’ most respected experts on organized labor and industrial relations, Professors Barry Bluestone of Northeastern University and  Thomas A. Kochan of MIT, the report focuses on collective bargaining in education, but presents a framework that could be applied to all public sector negotiations. Researchers spent months interviewing education stakeholders nationally to examine negotiation models and innovations as a basis for the report.

“We believe that if we can move toward the Grand Bargain envisioned here, our schools will be made even better, our public services can become more efficient and more effective, and our public sector agencies can become even better places to work,” said Paul Grogan, President of the Boston Foundation.

The report comes in a year when efforts to roll back collective bargaining rights of public sector workers have led to demonstrations and political battles in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Ohio, and have led to recall elections and deep cuts in education and social service budgets.

“We see this report as a call to action for labor and management in the Commonwealth to develop a new ‘Grand Bargain’ that empowers public sector managers, workers, and their union representatives to engage in continuous problem-solving with the goal of promoting the effectiveness and efficiency of government service,” said Professor Bluestone. “Changing the culture is no small task, but it is both critical and manageable, with the right training and oversight in place to support this new framework.”

The authors recommend the creation of a statewide ‘academy’ to train parties in interest-based bargaining and ongoing problem solving, and to support innovation efforts as needed by local districts. A multi-stakeholder oversight commission would monitor progress and recommend changes in policies and the creation of an online learning network would allow for all parties to share their experiences with common issues and innovative solutions would provide critical information sharing and assistance.

“The state must play a critical role in training and making it possible for all sides to have a shared understanding of this 21st century labor relations policy,” said Professor Kochan. “We hope the recommendations presented here provide ideas for a Massachusetts model for collective bargaining.”

The new framework would replace a traditional labor-management relationship that many on both sides of collective bargaining issues acknowledge is broken. The report noted that of Massachusetts school superintendents, school committee presidents and education union leaders surveyed,  just 8 percent of superintendents, 18 percent of school committee presidents and 24 percent of union leaders  said they are “very confident” that the “current state of labor management relations in their district is “sufficient to address the needs for performance improvement in education.”

In place of the traditional, adversarial approach where contract talks are defined by proposals, counter-proposals and a slow move toward compromise, the report lays out a more collaborative process. The process is based on expanded use of “interest-based bargaining,” in which the sides in a contract discussion jointly identify and analyze problems and their root causes, and identify the criteria to be considered in evaluating solutions. Through the approach, the two sides then jointly choose a solution to an issue, as well as the strategy for implementing, monitoring and evaluating the results over time.


The report lays out the following five components for a new approach to collective bargaining:

  • Expanded use of interest-based bargaining as a substitute for traditional adversarial negotiations  
  • Mutual agreement among the parties on protocols and fixed timetables negotiations, facilitation and  resolution of contract negotiations, and means for holding each party accountable for agreements 
  • Consideration of broader, regional or perhaps even statewide collective bargaining for setting wage and benefit levels  
  • Development of day-to-day shared responsibility among principals, teachers and their union representatives at each school site for continuous problem-solving joint decision-making.  
  • Creation of forums at the district level for engaging superintendents, school committee members, parents and union leaders in the task of building a shared vision for educational innovation.

To increase flexibility and promote shared responsibility, the authors suggest replacing the existing set of detailed work rules and job classifications in contracts with a system of continuous problem solving through joint decision-making committees comprised of the principal, teachers and a union representative in each school to agree on changes in operating procedures as issues arise.

Professors Bluestone and Kochan also suggest a system of teacher evaluation based on a combination of teacher peer review, assessment by principals, and multiple measures of student performance, as well as the development of a “Peer Assistance and Review” program link teacher evaluation, professional development and policies of compensation, transfer, assignment, promotion and dismissal.

Extending the Lessons

At the state level, the authors urge the Commonwealth to take a lead role in creating a statewide “Academy” to train parties in interest-based bargaining, to create an on-line Massachusetts Learning Network where all parties can share their experiences with common issues, and to create a multi-stakeholder oversight commission that could monitor educational improvements and recommend changes in policies to build and sustain a 21st century labor-management relations model for Massachusetts public services.

Studies have shown that collaborative labor management partnerships improve employee satisfaction and produce better outcomes for employers – and the authors provide examples of school districts and Massachusetts public service settings where fiscal and other pressures have led to substantive innovations in the collective bargaining relationship. The authors cite examples ranging from the coalition bargaining agreement that merged the workforces of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and other agencies into a new Massachusetts Department of Transportation, to the coalition of 19 Boston city unions which negotiated changes to their health plan that save the city $70 million while setting the stage for joint development of health and wellness programs that could reduce costs and improve the health of the city’s workforce.

Applying a new framework for collaborative negotiations opens the opportunity for broader change. “If all the parties who share an interest in and responsibility for public service labor-management relations take up the challenges and opportunities facing them, Massachusetts will demonstrate that there are positive and effective alternatives to the approaches taken in Wisconsin and other states,” the authors write.

“The Commonwealth can demonstrate to the nation that there are more successful ways to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of public services while preserving the cherished principle of collective bargaining.”


The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, is one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the nation, with assets of $733 million. In Fiscal Year 2010, the Foundation and its donors made more than $82 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and received gifts of close to $83 million. The Foundation is made up of some 900 separate charitable funds established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes. The Boston Foundation also serves as a major civic leader, provider of information, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to address the community’s and region’s most pressing challenges. For more information about the Boston Foundation, visit or call 617-338-1700