SIOUX CITY | Bruce Lear taught high school for 11 years in Iowa before he shifted gears to become a union leader representing educators.
Initially, "I did miss teaching quite a bit. Honestly, teaching is performing six shows a day, and it was a rush," Lear said.
But he never went back to the classroom.
"A few times I thought about it, and then I remembered lunch duty," Lear said with a smile.
So his work as director of the Siouxland UniServ group of the Iowa State Education Association, the entity that represents seven groups and 1,500 teachers and other education workers, panned out perfectly as his later life's work. Lear will retire on Tuesday after 27 years of helping educators bargain for wages and benefits, working conditions and other issues.
"I loved this job. It really became more of a calling for me than a job. Representing these people was phenomenal," Lear said.
"...Did I always win? No. Did I always lose? No. Did I always fight to get everything we needed? Yes."
Brenda Zahner, of Sergeant Bluff, becomes Lear's successor on Wednesday. She is a former elementary teacher who for the last three years represented 33 schools in Northwest Iowa, as far east as Buena Vista County and as far north as the Minnesota border.
Zahner will lead the seven bargaining units Lear headed, which includes two for the Sioux City School District and one each for Northwest Area Education Agency, Western Iowa Tech Community College and other groups.
"(Zahner) will do a magnificent job. She bargained 15 years with me in Sergeant Bluff," Lear said.
Sioux City School District Superintendent Paul Gausman, who worked with Lear for nine years, termed him a positive colleague who will be missed.
"While our professional positions occasionally put us on opposite sides of specific issues, we agree far more than we disagree. The blessing to me has always been the way he has been willing to work together toward positive results for students, while respecting the work we each must do to yield improvement in our organizations, the district and the community," Gausman said.
Lear said he worked with five Sioux City School District superintendents over his 27 years, and he most enjoyed the final two, Gausman and Larry Williams.
"Gradually, as we moved through them, things improved. We've had a pretty decent relationship in terms of bargaining, we really have," Lear said.
A native of tiny Shellsburg in eastern Iowa, Lear began his teaching career in Alden, Iowa, in 1979. A comprehensive state collective bargaining law for public employees started in 1974, and some school district teachers were slow to unionize. In Lear's second year at Alden, some veteran teachers asked him to participate in setting the first master contract. Before that, school superintendents settled on teacher salaries with each person individually.
"The whole idea was that collectively you are stronger as a profession than individually," Lear said.
He taught at Alden for four years, then in Cherokee, Iowa, for seven years through 1990, all the time becoming well-versed in union bargaining as he took on new roles. He moved to the UniServ job that year, becoming only the second director in the unit history, succeeding Ken Zeising.
Back when Lear began union tasks, he said teachers were primarily concerned about work hours and salary. He said benefits like health insurance were not a prime issue, since that coverage didn't cost much. As health costs escalated in the 1990s and 2000s, having strong health care options has risen in prominence as teacher negotiation issues.
Until the controversial collective bargaining law Republican lawmakers approved in 2017, Lear said union negotiations with school officials followed a predictable pattern. Using his hands, he pointed upward on how teachers in January opening proposals sought a high salary increase of about 5 percent, the district would respond with a zero or 1 percent offer, then they would settle somewhere in the middle by April.
Only twice in 27 years did the negotiations extend to the step of binding arbitration.
Lear said the negotiations weren't overly adversarial, and "striking a balance" is a key concept.
"You approach it so you are not necessarily demonizing the other side, because you've got to make a deal," he said.
"There is not a lot of shouting. There are positions, there is problem solving. I think collective bargaining is problem solving and, if not, you are doing it wrong."
Lear, 60, and his wife Jo live in Sioux City, where their two adult children and two grandchildren, ages 5 and 9, also live. In retirement, Lear plans to read, walk and travel more than he could before. He also pushed back against a rumor that he'll run for elective office.
"My wife told me, 'You are not running for any office,' and she is correct," Lear said.
"I think I will play with my grandchildren. I am good at that."