By Dr. Marc Gaswirth
Will the wave of well-publicized teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky make its way to the Garden State? Will the conditions prompting teacher protests elsewhere in the country play out here in New Jersey, where 50 years ago public displays of teacher discontent were commonplace?
Finally, will a Democrat governor and a Democrat-controlled Legislature indebted to the public labor unions for their support this past November embolden greater teacher activism?
The answers to these questions may be speculative, but if history informs us then the reasons prompting current protests elsewhere today have their antecedents in New Jersey.
More than 50 years ago, a legislative solution was put forward to address growing restiveness among teachers thought at the time to be underpaid and in some cases, poorly treated.
The proposed remedy was a 1968 law that established the “collective negotiations” process, which authorized unions and school boards to enter into formal agreements regarding salary and other benefits.
Many years ago, I co-authored a study based on my doctoral dissertation that traced the origins, causes, frequency and duration of teachers’ strikes in New Jersey. Many of the causative factors then, including dissatisfaction with the overall level of compensation and the lack of respect for the work performed, are similar to those present today.
Peaking in the late 1960s through the early 1980s, 160 teachers’ strikes occurred, with a large majority occurring after the passage of the 1968 law. Several lasted more than a week. Indeed, a protracted one in Newark, where an American Federation of Teachers affiliate represented teachers, settled after 55 school days.
Urban and larger suburban school districts were more likely to have been affected, but overall only a small percentage, approximately 6 percent, of the 600 local school districts ever experienced a strike during this period, although many more saw protests and work slowdowns.
Immediately preceding and following the law’s enactment, the New Jersey Education Association, the statewide union representing most local union affiliates, had hurriedly but effectively prepared and urged its members to obtain major bargaining concessions.
This agenda was often met with stiff resistance from some school boards, which resented the union’s tactics and oversized ambitions.
With some significant exceptions, the past 40 years has seen a significant slowdown in teacher militancy, a testament to the effectiveness of the law and to the prevailing practice, until the Christie Administration, that the parties could negotiate contracts relatively free of economic and legislated constraints.
In the past 10 years especially, a calmer and more constrained bargaining climate, however, has produced far less favorable bargaining outcomes for school employees, a reversal from earlier times.
It is uncertain how long this will last.
Not until the Great Recession of 2008 and the election of Chris Christie a year later did a large number of state politicians, including many Democrats, start to react seriously regarding how bargaining outcomes were affecting local taxpayers.
Several laws were soon enacted that significantly altered the local bargaining process, affecting not only school employees but other public workers as well. Three laws especially stand out.
One limited the ability of school boards to raise local property taxes from 4 percent to 2 percent annually, effectively limiting average annual salary increases to well under 3 percent in recent years.
Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics notes that the average salary of New Jersey teachers, when adjusted for inflation, actually declined by nearly $2,000 from 2010 to 2016.
Another groundbreaking legislative effort, despite strenuous opposition from organized labor, shifted health benefits costs to public employees. Ten years ago, they paid little or nothing toward the cost of these benefits.
A 2010 law, which required a modest 1.5 percent contribution toward this cost, was superseded a year later by the current law, which imposed much larger contributions. Depending on the choice of coverage and plan and base salary, a typical school employee now pays thousands of dollars annually, often for reduced coverage.
While not representing a significant financial hit, the third law increased school employee pension contributions in exchange for the promised, but failed commitment by the state to fully fund the pension system over time, which has also helped to fuel resentment.
Since these three laws took effect, the take-home pay for many school employees has remained relatively flat.
Add to this list a significant tenure reform act, including other accountability measures, and yet another source of tension has surfaced among school employees. Not only are they receiving less compensation, they are under greater pressure to meet specific and arguable performance standards that could possibly threaten their jobs.
All these issues may well create, or perhaps have already created, an underlying source of discontent in New Jersey ready to materialize either in the form of grassroots actions as has been seen in other states prompted by social media, or by local- or state-inspired and endorsed union actions.
Most organized school employees were pleased to see the former governor exit the State House and felt relieved and vindicated that Gov. Phil Murphy has replaced him. The current governor’s election has buoyed spirits and heightened expectations the future bargaining environment will be friendlier to union interests.
Regardless of the change in the political environment, the critical question that remains is whether local school boards are willing or, more importantly, able to satisfy these expectations in any meaningful way. If not, it would not be surprising to see a re-emergence of teacher activism, including more demonstrations, job actions and even occasional work stoppages.
Dr. Marc Gaswirth of Marlboro is a retired school administrator and an education consultant. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org