N.J. Gov. Chris Christie’s Budget Cuts May Bring Back Power Behind Teachers Unions

christie rallyShe sat on the sidewalk, back against one of those iron fences that adorn the alleys between old brownstones lining West State Street across from the Statehouse. From a bag, she pulled a sheath of papers — math tests — and began to correct them. “Talk to someone else,” she said. “Please. I don’t want to be involved in this.” Trish Hosgood, a calculus teacher from Cherry Hill High School West, could not see she made a perfect poster model for the rally of tens of thousands of people going on around her. There she was, spending a Saturday correcting papers while, at the same time, sensing the need to make some sort of statement about teaching. She finally relented about talking.

“I’m here because I don’t understand,” said Hosgood, a teacher for nine years. “It happened so suddenly. People are taking sides and I’m on one side. I didn’t know there were sides.”

Hosgood also could not see she illustrated the problem facing public workers and their unions, especially teachers. They are a generation removed from the militance that marked the rise of public union bargaining in the 1960s. They enjoyed a long period, not just of labor peace, but of increased salaries and benefits won, virtually without a fight.

“But this is going to bring back militance,” insisted Bob Russo, the former Montclair mayor who was jailed for his role in the 1971 Newark teachers strike.

He was at the same rally in Trenton Hosgood attended, but has a different vision of their profession. Russo, now president of a college faculty union, knew a time when teachers accepted poverty level salaries and were willing to defy the law to earn more. They thought sticking their fingers in the eyes of authority would earn them respect.

“We were missionaries,” said Susan Miksza, who rose from teacher to acting superintendent of the Clark schools and is now retired. “That’s the kind of money we made. Now, here I am, still marching, still trying to earn respect.”

But more teachers are like Hosgood than like Russo or Miksza. Gov. Chris Christie’s attack on the successes of teacher unionism has thrown younger teachers off-guard. They feel they have been sucker-punched and don’t know how to react.

“It’s like we woke up one morning and the world had changed,” said Linda Mirabelli, a music teacher in Livingston, where Christie’s mother worked.

“Everything is different. What people thought of us. What we think of ourselves. We were liked and respected and now, overnight, people have turned against us.”

It’s been a shock and even the public employee unions have had a difficult time reacting. Barbara Keshishian, the president of the New Jersey Education Association, simply isn’t a union firebrand even if she did call Christie a liar in print.

She was the featured speaker at Saturday’s rally — well-attended and well-organized — but she is no rhetorical match for Christie, a politician with the skills of the prosecutor he was once. He knows how to make people look like bad guys.

So what do these teachers do?

“Militance is not off the table,” said John Abeigon, a staff member of the Newark Teachers Union, at Saturday’s rally.

But militance against whom? School boards are not the enemy, but fellow victims of school aid cuts. Will teachers strike to save the non-tenured among them from layoffs?

Anxiety felt by teachers might strengthen the NJEA and other unions. “We’ve got to support Barbara,” Mary Hepburn, a 43-year-veteran of the Jersey City schools, said of Keshishian. “She’s taking the hits, and she’s trying to protect us.”

If the governor’s attacks on teachers and their unions strengthen the NJEA’s leadership, he may yet regret them. Without the militance of 30 years ago, the union was facing irrelevance. Now, it may lay a new claim on the loyalties of instructors.

But teachers and other public employees face a bigger battle than Chris Christie. They need to persuade the hurting working people of New Jersey — those without union protections, those without good benefits — that all middle-class and working people, private sector and public, are in the same, leaky economic boat.

The most fiery speaker day, Chris Shelton, a vice president of the Communications Workers of America, AFL-CIO, made the point repeatedly: public employees have to join with private sector workers, shed their fears, and persuade a jaded public that the nonrich “are not going to take it anymore.”

“Rise and rise again, until lambs become lions,” he shouted, stealing a line from the new movie version of “Robin Hood.”

Yet, not far away, a young man was giving out “Recall Christie” magnets, very popular with the rally crowd. He was asked his name, but he declined to reveal it.

“I’m a non-tenured teacher,” he explained.

So much for lions. Star Ledger

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  1. Am I supposed to feel bad for the teacher’s unions or something? The teacher’s union is one of the biggest reasons our property taxes are what they are!

  2. Message to #3. There is no question that unions are needed but it is necessary for everyone to bear the burden in tough times. what is the percentage of people laid off or receiving less pay in the private sector as opposed to public union jobs? Can we keep saying that everything the gov’t pays for is necessary? Maybe we shouldnt cut teachers pay but do we need so many people in school administration? Can we AFFORD to pay the pension funds or will it bankrupt us as a society? Why ar epublic sector pension funds so much more generous than in the private sector? Are there areas such as sanitation that can be better run by the private sector? Even if not, does every town need their own public works dept or can they be pooled to save costs? There are many ways to effect cost savings without losing services but we cannot allow the unions to keep bullying our state into bankruptcy. This is the Christie message. Buckle up in the next few years so we will be able to afford the future. And believe it or not I am sure there are plenty of programs that can be cut. I know that they help different people in different areas but they are not neccesarily the function of the gov’t.

  3. The unions are killing this country. Look at California they are bankrupt. I am so glad that we elected a responsible governor who will manage a budget.

  4. The teachers just don’t get it.
    We love you, we don’t hate you. And we know that you deserve everything your getting, and more. We just don’t have the money to pay you. We love our cops, we love the DPW, we love the EMS, what would our town, state, and country look like with out our dedicated public servants.
    However at this point we just don’t have the money to pay you all, so we are going to have to make cuts across the board. That’s just the way it is.

  5. Every teacher that you talk to says they do it for the kids. If that is really true then what do you need the union for. What kind of protection do you need. You will do the job with what ever they offer you. As for health ins. everyone should pay some amount in to it. Why should everyone else have to pay for theirs but not you. At least you get a few months off during the summer. plus all you regular vacation & sick time.

  6. To #1
    Who is this WE you speak of, only 33% of the people of New Jersey agree or approve of Christie’s actions so far. 66% which is two thirds of NJ !, are against Christie. WE the majority see this guy for who he is, another rich republican who wants to keep the rich, rich, the poor, poor and eliminate the middle class. The unions you want to take down are here to protect ALL of the middle class and the poor whether your are a member or not.

  7. I agree that the Unions are destroying the economy. They bankrupted some major companies. As far as the teachers are concerned, they might be great people but they’re retiring with full pensions including insurance etc. It’s not free money out there that the teachers are taking their salary from.

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