Lessons from a militant strike

In November 2001, Monmouth County, N.J., was the scene of a strike by 900-plus teachers and secretaries employed by the Middletown Township Board of Education.

School employee strikes are not frequent among the over 500 school districts in the state, but some take place every year, despite judges, school boards and politicians considering them illegal. In Middletown, the court ordered strikers to be jailed for the duration of the strike.

The union was forced to call off the strike after nine days, with 228 members in jail up to that point. The severe actions of the school board and the judges created a crisis for N.J. public employee union members.

In 1968 the New Jersey Legislature instituted collective bargaining for school employees. Virtually all certificated teachers and many non-certificated school employees (teacher aides, custodians, secretaries) are union members and protected by collective bargaining contracts. The problem with the present collective bargaining process is that it lacks a mechanism for bringing an impasse in negotiations to a conclusion.

Frequently, boards force a strike by demanding big concessions. Then boards go into court requesting back-to-work injunctions. N.J. judges inflict penalties of their choosing.

When union leaders do not strike, and bargaining drags on into the second year, boards petition the state Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) to impose the board contract demands. Despite a lack of any legislative mandate, PERC does exactly that, and the courts uphold it.

Now trade unionists face either a strike risking possible severe penalties, or having the will of the board imposed. This gives boards an unfair advantage in the bargaining process; since they know they can obtain imposition, they provoke an impasse. Jailing strike leaders and threats of firing strikers have all been used before and unions were still able to exercise their right to strike. But the Middletown strike and court decision to jail all the strikers and threatening even more penalties if that didn’t end the strike is a new level of union-busting.

A post-mortem of the Middletown strike underscores some important unity lessons to learn because of the enormous odds the union was up against. Middletown has a long history of defeating budgets, and of having school boards and administrations hostile to the union. Residents who claimed they too have inadequate health benefits said the teachers were selfish in trying to preserve theirs.

Although the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and the Middletown local had participated in community outreach efforts of various kinds for years, it seemed inadequate during the strike. The county newspapers and radio stations were hostile to the strikers, and demonized union members and leaders. Renewed efforts need to be made to develop better community relations, in Middletown and elsewhere.

The most egregious failure of the union organization, though, was the failure to build even one massive rally for the embattled Middletown teachers, or to reach out to other unions for statements of support.

There is still no final contract. During the strike the judge urged that arbitration be undertaken, but the board refused, and the judge said he had no power to compel arbitration.

The fallout of Middletown is that local union leaders around the state are less likely to call strikes (and boards will be less likely to fear them) and there is increased pressure on the legislature to come up with a solution to such strikes.

NJEA is redoubling past efforts to obtain a law that will prohibit contract imposition. Though a critical first step, there still would be no mechanism to bring a labor dispute to some sort of timely conclusion. More legislation will be needed.

What the legislature does may well affect other public employee unions outside the schools. Police and firefighters are already covered by interest arbitration, but most municipal workers and state employees are not. Labor unity is essential to obtain legislation that is beneficial to union members and if draconian anti-labor laws are to be avoided.

The Communication Workers of America, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers and the NJEA, among others, should be on the same page when approaching lawmakers. The present session of the legislature may be an historic one for the labor movement in New Jersey.

The author is a retired teacher and long-time leader of a New Jersey Education Association local and can be reached at pww@pww.org