Christopher Cerf, the state-appointed superintendent of the Newark schools, has unilaterally taken actions that threaten the future of collective bargaining rights of the city’s school employee unions–and maybe even the future of the unions. Cerf announced he was imposing a salary settlement on members of the City Association of School Administrtators (CASA), the union representing school principals, and he directed that prescription benefits plans be changed without a new agreement with the Newark Teachers Union (NTU).
“I am making the decision,” Cerf wrote in a letter to Tina Taylor, CASA’s president, saying he would unilaterally impose a new salary guide on principals and other administrators and take away a $6 million “contract ratification bonus” because, in his view, the union had waited to long to reach an agreement. His words were reminiscent of Gov. Chris Christie’s warnings to then newly-elected mayor Ras Baraka that he–Christie–was the decider of what happened in and to Newark schools.
“It’s clear that this latest move by Cerf is an attempt to break the CASA union,” said Tina Taylor, CASA’s president. The union has not had a new contract since 2009.
At the same time, Cerf’s “chief talent officer,” Vanessa Rodriguez, announced in a letter to the provider of prescription drug benefits, the General Prescription Plan (GPP) that, “It is a decision of Newark Public Schools to cancel our Prescription coverage” for school employee unions, including the NTU. She demanded that the GPP turn over to her all information about subscribers held by the provider.
The prescription plan, provided under contract with the Newark Supplemental Fringe Benefits Program (SBF), ends Feb. 1, Rodriguez said.
“We’re going to court,” said NTU President John Abeigon, who contended Cerf acted “with no financial discussion with the Newark Advisory Board (and) without any power to do so.”
Abeigon said Cerf’s decision to cancel the prescription contract as of Feb. 1came after the union refused to drop the SFB-backed prescription plan. The union president said Cerf wants to give the contract to BeneCard Services. Abeigon linked the company both to its founder, Doug Forrester, a prominent Republican businessman who ran unsuccessfully for US Senator in 2002 and for governor in 2005–and to George Norcross III, executive chairman of Connor, Strong, Buckelew, an insurance broker that has had business connections to Benecard.
Norcross, a champion of charter and other privatized schools, is the Democratic boss of South Jersey and dictates much of what happens in Camden and its school district–but he has developed strong ties to Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
It is not clear from the documents made available concerning Cerf’s decision to change prescription plans whether Norcross’s company will receive any benefit from the change. Nor is it clear how the change–if it survives the NTU court attack–will affect the benefits received by members of the unions representing school employees.
What is clear is that Cerf, acting in the middle of the winter break, took unexpected and unilateral dramatic action to impose decisions that had been the subject of continuing negotiations–and those actions represented severe blows to employee unions.
“So much for transparency,” said Abeigon, referring to Cerf’s repeated promises to act more openly than had his predecessor–and appointee–Cami Anderson. Cerf was state education commissioner when he hired Anderson to run Newark and then replaced Anderson after she was fired by Christie.
It’s also clear those unilateral decisions might divide the already weakened unions. CASA, for example, faces the awkward problem inherent in opposing an imposed settlement that gives school principals their first raises in nearly seven years–but reduces the raises by $6 million. That awkwardness was apparent in a statement from Taylor who came close to praising Cerf:
“CASA is pleased the most recent state-appointed superintendent has finally recognized that Newark Public Schools educational leaders, principals, vice principals, heads of athletics, and chief innovation officers, represented by CASA, are deserving of salary increases.”
Taylor insisted, however, that everything else in the contract needs to be negotiated.
The truth, however, is that the union has to face the embarrassment of having a salary guide imposed unilaterally on its members–raising the obvious question of what utility the union serves. CASA has been a target of the state administration since the Newark schools were taken over more than 20 years ago. By changing job titles, former superintendent Cami Anderson took away hundreds of positions once covered by the administrators’ contract.
The NTU also faces tough times. It has been working without a new contract since last July. Since its creation in the early 1970s, the Supplemental Benefits Fund–run jointly by the union and the school district–has been viewed as a strong and independent institution that reflected well on union leadership. Cerf’s decision to unilaterally cancel the fund’s control over what prescription plan will be chosen by the schools can serve only to undermine the union’s influence among its members.
“Cerf will have to talk to us,” says Abeigon. He cited a decision by the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) that directed the state-appointed superintendent to negotiate the issue of prescription benefits.
The union president also argued that the SBFP has saved Newark “millions” and that any change to private companies will increase costs.
But the union–like virtually all public employee unions–has few friends left in positions of power. Not only Republicans, but powerful Democrats like Norcross, have joined in the crusade to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.