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When we talk about what's on the table in collective bargaining, we're talking about more than wages and benefits. Unions negotiate over a wide range of workplace issues, as NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: When a school district or a county government signs a union contract, the headline often announces what kind of pay raise or health care plan the union got. But buried in those agreements are complex rules that are often just as important as money to workers.

Angela Aldous is a nurse on the cancer ward of the University of Wisconsin hospital, where she often overseas chemotherapy. Her union successfully argued that one nurse should never have to care for more than four patients at a time. It was a matter of public safety.

Ms. ANGELA ALDOUS (Nurse, University of Wisconsin Hospital): When you're trying to verify chemo, hang the chemo, give it safely, educate the patient and, heaven forbid, have time to comfort the patient as they go through cancer, you can't take more than four patients.

ABRAMSON: Aldous could lose the right to bargain over such issues if Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is able to pass his proposal to limit collective bargaining. Teachers' contracts often get more scrutiny because parents are concerned about class size, something that is often a subject of bargaining.

Mary Bell, head of the Wisconsin Education Association Council says her members use collective bargaining to speak up on behalf of students.

Ms. MARY BELL (Wisconsin Education Association Council): What your voice is in setting curriculum, how it is that you decide things about grade levels and how different issues that the workplace really needs to do in order to advocate for students.

ABRAMSON: But for administrators, collective bargaining can feel more like a straitjacket. John Ashley is head of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. Some of his members want to team up with neighboring schools to cut costs, but that violates so-called exclusivity clauses.

Mr. JOHN ASHLEY (Wisconsin Association of School Boards) Those exclusivity clauses require all our classes offered by a district to be supervised by a member of the district union, even if the course is being taught by fully certified and licensed teacher from another district.

ABRAMSON: Ashley says, that's how bargaining affects spending even when wages and benefits are not directly involved.

In recent years, education reformers have begun to complain that teachers' contracts limit experimentation because administrators cannot change the length of the school day, for example, without consulting the union.

By far the biggest complaint is aimed at labor's role in hiring, firing and layoffs. Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee butted heads with the local union when she tried to fire ineffective teachers and reward top performers. Now as head of an advocacy group called Students First, Rhee has released a new video attacking seniority rules.

Ms. MICHELLE RHEE (Students First): When you do seniority-based layoffs, we actually end up cutting some of our most effective teachers. We actually end up having to lay off more teachers and lose more jobs because the junior teachers are paid the least, and we need to fire more of them in order to make up the budget deficit.

ABRAMSON: Seniority and tenure rights could be eaten away if new laws pass in Wisconsin, Indiana and elsewhere, but only if local administrators take advantage of them. Many districts may end up sticking with the status quo, at least for now.

Patrick Henneger advises local governments for the Wisconsin-based law firm Phillips Borowski. He says collective bargaining gives management a level of comfort.

Mr. PATRICK HENNEGER (Phillips Borowski): One thing, when you have a contract in place, you're forced to be consistent in the way you make your employment decisions. And I think that's still a concern going forward for any of these school districts and municipal employers.

ABRAMSON: Henneger says, if these laws pass, school districts and local governments are going to need lots of legal advice on how to operate in this new world.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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