Here’s the question now in the Newark schools: Will the charm offensive pressed by Christopher Cerf, the governor’s man running the district, overpower the contractual rights of teachers and other school employee unions? Will Cerf’s sweet-talking to the school board and his road show with the mayor result in a major—perhaps fatal–blow to public employees and their bargaining units?
Cerf is trying to ignore his contractual obligations to bring in a new prescription drug provider with business connections to the insurance broker run by George Norcross, the South Jersey Democratic boss and virtual co-governor with Chris Christie. The Newark Teachers Union (NTU) is trying to fight the switch.
Cerf’s antipathy to the union is long-standing. The opportunity to break the union’s remaining power is obvious. Since Christie cut a deal with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka to bring in Cerf, the former state education commissioner and national charter school champion, as Newark superintendent, virtually all vocal community opposition to state control and privatization has ceased.
The loudest voices in he past—including those of the Newark Students Union and members of the elected school advisory board—have oddly fallen silent. Indeed, the charismatic leader of the Newark Students’ Union, Jose Leonardo, has quit his leadership position in the union–but remains a member of the rump “Newark Educational Success Board”, a co-opting of the anti-state leadership that had the city in open rebellion against the governor just last May.
Cerf contends the switch to the Norcross-connected firm will save the district money—although the district has not released data proving the contention. But Cerf has conceded to The Star-Ledger that he is attempting to bring in the new provider, Benecard, owned by former Republican gubernatorial candidate Douglas Forrester, on a non-bid basis.
The school advisory board—through the leadership of president Ariagna Perello—has insisted that , where possible, all contracts should be put out to bid, a position backed by John Abeigon, the NTU president.
“If the state administration believes there is something wrong about the way the prescription program is handled, let it put the whole thing out to bid and see who can come with the most inexpensive plan,” said Abeigon.
This is a crucial moment for the union—indeed, for all school employee unions. Cerf is attempting, not just to unilaterally change the prescription program, but also to impose a wage settlement on the union representing school administrators, the City Association of School Administrators (CASA).
Cerf’s unilateral actions come just as the NTU and the state-imposed administration are about to begin contract negotiations. If the teachers’ union cannot muster enough support to protect the benefits’ plan provided by its past contracts, then the administration clearly can slice through a weak union and impose other provisions on members.
Abeigon says the union will be in court either Tuesday or Wednesday to seek an injunction to stop the switch to the Norcross-connected firm—if the union cannot persuade Cerf to drop its efforts.
Abeigon believes Cerf may push too far—and provoke a reaction from the union’s membership. But fear and complacency have plagued the NTU for months. In October, Abeigon called for a massive showing of opposition to charter expansion plans–then backed by Baraka. Only a handful of members showed up.
The atmosphere is reminiscent of circumstances in the late 1960’s when the school board refused to negotiate with the Newark Teachers Association, an affiliate of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). The demoralized NTA members refused to show up for a strike vote and the then militant Newark Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, took over bargaining rights and led members into two strikes, one of which lasted 61 days.
The NTU members may be as demoralized as the NTA supporters were 45 years ago–but, this time, there is no alternative organization to represent the teachers.
Abeigon, however, believes Cerf’s unilateral actions may shake the membership into action.
“We’ve seen it in Chicago and we’ve seen it in a Detroit,” said Abeigon. “The unions there were pushed too far—and there is such a thing as a last straw. Maybe this is it in Newark.”