The head of the Newark Teachers Union (NTU), invoking the sacrifices faced by the union in the past, has called on current members to oppose efforts by the school district’s state managers to make unilateral changes in the school employees’ prescription drug program. John Abeigon’s contention that the unilateral change is a “punch in the face” that must be answered with “action” carries with it the risk union members are simply not up for a fight and will have few political allies in Newark.
“Stand in the place of that teacher (who didn’t know you) who 30 years ago risked her job but stood afraid yet strong and united in the fight for her rights and your benefits,” Abeigon said in an email to all members. “We are all her beneficiaries.”
At issue is the decision by state-appointed superintendent Christopher Cerf to change prescription providers from General Prescription Program (GPP) to Benecard Services without negotiating the change with either the union or with the Supplemental Fringe Benefits Fund (SFBF), a program set up decades ago to provide benefits to Newark teachers.
On New Year’s Eve, with the schools closed and school employees on vacation, Vanessa Rodriguez, the state district’s “chief talent officer,” informed GPP its participation would end Feb. 1 and directed the service to provide her with personal information about subscribers.
Rodriguez’s letter did not specify a replacement provider but Abeigon says discussions with the district indicate the state wants to give the contract to Benecard Services, Inc., a company founded by former Republican senate and gubernatorial candidate Douglas Forrester. The union president also said the broker for the transaction could be Connor, Strong, Buckelew, a company headed by George Norcross III, the Democratic boss of South Jersey who has been a partner with Gov. Chris Christie in pushing for school privatizing “reforms” opposed by unions and parent groups.
In his email, Abeigon noted that Cami Anderson, the previous state superintendent, and Cerf, then the state education commissioner, signed off on contract language that provided:
“1. That the SFBF shall solicit open market competitive quotes on the entire supplemental employee benefit package bargaining unit members.
“2. That the SFBF shall, after review of all quotes, review and select a benefit provider.
“3. That the SFBF shall inform the Newark Public Schools and the Union of the name of the selected benefit provider, the premium cost and the level of benefits.”
The SFBF, Abeigon said, has not made such decisions.
“Why then does Cerf, just as we are about to begin negotiations take it upon himself to award a “no bid” prescription plan contract to politically connected BeneCard?” he asked.
The union president contended the state has not provided information about the costs of the change. Abeigon wrote:
“To date you have no facts or information regarding this unilateral change to your benefits—what does that tell you? Our research tells us that statewide BeneCard copay’s can range from $15-20. Depending on your situation this could be devastating. If the punch in the face doesn’t upset you, maybe the dent in your budget should.
“Are we upset? Certainly, especially in light of negotiations that are about to begin. But, we hope that cooler heads and the legal system will prevail and rule in our favor. In the meantime we must urgently take united action. As educators we must show SAS”–state appointed superintendent–“Cerf that decisions have consequences.
“You-with the asthmatic child, you with the diabetes, YOUR presence at the next board meetings to show your righteous indignation, can help us make a difference. Together as part of the Union that fought long and hard to have these benefits; as part of a history; stand in the place of that teacher (who didn’t know you) who 30 years ago risked her job but stood afraid yet strong and united in the fight for her rights and your benefits. We are all her beneficiaries.”
The elected school advisory board, which apparently played no role in the change, is scheduled to hold a business meeting Jan. 19 and an open meeting Jan. 26.
Although the meetings have been forums for community and union frustration over the state administration of New Jersey’s largest school district, they have become quiet affairs since the spring when Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Christie reached a deal that would purportedly bring local control over the schools back to the city.
Since that deal, virtually all opposition to the state–including from the unions, students, and parent groups–has collapsed. Baraka and Cerf have made it clear in a variety of public appearances that they are working together.
The NTU and other employee unions were among Baraka’s strongest backers in the 2014 election. They provided much of his campaign cash and street support. The union has not publicly criticized the mayor’s alliance with Christie’s appointees in Newark but the mayor’s silence in response to the latest attack on collective bargaining has troubled union officials.
The union, however, faces a risky future: If its members fail to turn out to support the attack on a bargained item as important as fringe benefits, the NTU leadership will have virtually no credibility in its current negotiations with the state.