After more than eight months of tough contract negotiations, Jersey City teachers walked off the job on Friday, March 16 after the Board of Education failed to approve a final offer. The school board authorized its lawyers to seek court action ending a strike, calling it illegal under state law. Negotiations were scheduled to continue Friday morning at press time.
A press conference was scheduled for Friday afternoon by Mayor Steven Fulop to comment on the strike. The teachers’ union issued a release on Friday saying schools were open that day.
Ron Greco, president of the Jersey City Education Association, had warned teachers during a rally in front of City Hall on March 13 to be prepared to walk out if the board failed to act.
The 3,100 teachers have been working without a contract for more than a year, and Greco said, “We’ll have to do what we have to do,” if the board failed to act.
The board did not take action at a meeting on March 14 that lasted until after midnight, prompting the union to begin the process that led to the walkout.
Greco said the JCEA was prepared.
Bob Cecchini, who was vice president of the JCEA during the last strike in 1998, said, “Negotiations have stalled.”
He confirmed that teachers had walked off the job.
“No contract, no work,” he said. “Right now, they’re on strike. How much further it goes depends on how negotiations go.”
The union notified teachers on Thursday night to be prepared to go out on strike on Friday morning.
Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas said the board voted on Thursday to authorize the presentation of its best final offer to the JCEA.
The vote was 4-2 of unconflicted members Marilyn Roman, Angel Valentin, Luis Felipe Fernandez, and Thomas voting in favor, and Vydia Gangadin, and Matthew Schapiro against.
Three board members were unable to vote under a Christie administration change in policy that prohibits them from negotiations with union contracts because they have relatives working in the district.
“This vote was concluded after a nearly six-hour long meeting around 11:30 p.m.,” Thomas said. “The board has worked very hard in the last few weeks in coordination with Regina Robinson our business administrator and her office to synthesize this final proposal amidst a hectic pre-budget schedule. We tried calling the JCEA office to update them of the board’s decision but were unable to reach Mr. Greco; the phone line was answered by a female staffer.”
Thomas said the board meeting’s proceedings were telecast through Facebook Live including the close-to-midnight vote, and there could have been no room for any misunderstanding on the part of the JCEA.
“We are no doubt disappointed with the JCEA’S reckless and irresponsible decision to strike work,” Thomas said. “The JCEA action will cause immense hardship to the 30,000 students we serve, the parents, the citizens of Jersey City and create additional pressure on the district while we are combating a $70 million shortfall for our budget 2018-2019. This is not counting the city’s resources that have to be deployed to help. The 2,980 teachers who are now participating in a JCEA led job action will experience additional fiscal stress for participating in a strike which is illegal in the state of New Jersey.”
He continued, “As of 4 a.m. this morning when it was clear to us that the JCEA is moving ahead with a strike, after several attempts to contact the JCEA leadership proved futile, I very reluctantly authorized our labor counsel to go ahead with the necessary legal action in the chancery court of the Hudson County to seek emergent reliefs including asking the teachers to return to work, to return to negotiations so we can resolve this contract to protect our 30,000 children.”
Thomas said the board fully understands the teachers’ situation.
“We have worked very hard to settle this contract. Many citizens are very disturbed by a citywide robocall that went out from the district to parents and staff members confirming a strike and sharing strike contingency plans which the board had not approved or authorized at the time of this robocall,” Thomas said. “This robocall possibly went out while the board was in deliberation, unknown to the board. Some believe this robocall could have wrongly allowed the JCEA to conclude that the board had voted down the proposal or was moving ahead in declaring an impasse. We will be separately carrying out a thorough review and or investigation of the timing, the content of these robocalls, and a few other incidents from the past few days.”
“I don’t want to use the S word. But we have to prepare.” – Ron Greco
NJEA supports Jersey City strikers
In a statement the New Jersey Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, offered support for striking teachers in Jersey City.
“Over 4,000 members of the Jersey City Education Association have taken a bold stand for economic justice, affordable health care and great public schools for Jersey City’s students and families,” the statement said. “JCEA’s action follows months of fruitless attempts by the local union to negotiate a successor agreement to the contract that expired on Aug. 31, 2017. JCEA members have been working under the terms of that expired agreement, which included onerous health care contributions that have led to many Jersey City educators seeing reductions in their take-home pay year after year. JCEA members have demanded that the Board of Education recognize that those contribution levels are unsustainable and to work with the association to provide meaningful relief, but so far the board has refused.”
NJEA President Marie Blistan said Jersey City teachers have taken a bold stand.
“NJEA stands in unwavering support of JCEA members in their fight for economic justice,” Blistan said. “They deserve a fair contract that respects their needs and their contributions to the success of Jersey City’s public schools. Educators across New Jersey have been devastated by skyrocketing health care costs. For many, it is becoming difficult or impossible to support their families without taking second or even third jobs. JCEA members have made it clear that, together with the Board of Education, this crisis can be resolved. We know that the Jersey City community stands with JCEA members. It is time for the board to listen and act.”
Sending a message
On Wednesday, more than 400 Jersey City teachers marched through downtown from the Newark Avenue pedestrian mall to City Hall in a last-ditch effort to get Mayor Steven Fulop to intervene in stalled negotiations for a new contract.
Although the teachers have been conducting public protests for months, Greco said the current contract offer to the board was the last before a potential strike.
“I would rather settle this,” he said.
He said strikes are terrible for everyone, noting that there are still bad feelings toward teachers who chose to cross picket lines in the 1998 strike.
Greco is very much a firebrand and a popular leader of the JCEA. At the City Hall rally the marchers even asked Greco to autograph their protest signs and pose for pictures with him.
With a megaphone in front of City Hall, shouted out challenges in the direction of the mayor’s office, demanding that the mayor come out.
“Nobody but developers get in to see him,” he told the crowds. “Then he gives them abatements that do not pay any school taxes.”
The crowd then chanted, “Where’s the mayor? Where’s the mayor?” and roared when they saw a venetian blind move in the mayor’s window.
Greco stirred up the crowd with a history lesson about union organizers in the past.
“Immigrants built this city,” he told the crowd. “Unions fought to get an eight-hour work day, a 40-hour week, and to get rid of child labor. We’re fighting the same fight today, but our issues are a little different.”
But Greco, however, said he’s optimistic that a deal with the Board of Education can be worked out. Health coverage was the sticking point.
The teachers contact is the first of four the JCEA must negotiate, plus contracts for teachers’ aides, secretaries, and administrative office staff.
“But we can’t get past the first contract,” Greco said. “But if we resolve the health coverage issue, it will be the same for all four contracts and the rest will be easy.”
Christie didn’t live up to his part of the bargain
In 2010, New Jersey teachers agreed to a deal with then Gov. Christopher Christie to pay for health benefits over the next four years, in exchange for the governor funding the pension system, where the state had lagged significantly behind for years. For four years, the teachers paid a percentage of premiums, but Christie reneged on his promise to fund the pension.
The teachers are looking for relief from a health benefit plan which not only includes a 15 percent increase every year, but forces teachers to pay an increased portion if they get raises.
“I know everybody pays for some of their insurance,” Greco said. “But we need to have a cap because some of our people are losing money even when they get a small increase in salary.”
This request for relief has caused the union to butt heads with Schools Superintendent Dr. Marcia Lyles.
“She doesn’t believe in the relief. It’s a philosophical thing,” Greco said.
This is partly why some of the negative chanting at the rally focused on Lyles, although some teachers dislike Lyles for other reasons.
Close, but no contract
At the February Board of Education meeting, Greco said the board and union were close to a deal and were simply waiting for the board to make their offer.
“The offer came. We tweaked it and sent it back, the board voted it down,” Greco said.
Greco said he was still open to negotiate.
But teachers hope to get Fulop’s City Hall to pressure the board on the union’s behalf.
“If the board does not take our offers, then its game over,” he said, noting that the union has put Gov. Phil Murphy on notice. “We will embarrass him.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.