Why does the Newark Teachers Union need charity?

NTU's Abeigon
NTU’s Abeigon

The other day a friend told me that a mutual acquaintance, a private school teacher, had fallen seriously ill. The teacher’s friends and colleagues, he said,  were raising money for her through GoFundMe, the online site for charitable giving,  because the expenses she faced were almost as daunting as her illness.  A few days later, I learned the Newark Teachers Union (NTU), an affiliate of the AFL-CIO,  also had opened a GoFundMe site to raise money for itself and members.  It too, apparently, faces a daunting fate.

The health problems faced by a person are, of course, more compelling than the financial problems faced by a public employee union. Still, when an organization on which thousands of men and women rely for essential services– like medical insurance—seeks charity, then those men and women should be concerned.

John Abeigon, the NTU president, views the effort as a sort of David vs. Goliath effort.

“The corporations that have been funding the attack on teachers have very deep pockets,” he says. “In the case of charter schools like KIPP and Northstar, they are using public funds. No one can say the union has deep pockets.”

Abeigon speaks mostly of the efforts by state administrators running the Newark district to use the new tenure law—a weakling compared to prior job security measures—to fire tenured teachers. Under former state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson and then her successor, former state education commissioner Christopher Cerf, the state-operated district sought to dismiss a score or more of tenured Newark teachers by using a patently wrong interpretation of the new statute.

The law and accompanying regulations called for a year of experimental use of the new law before any district could begin using its punitive elements to dismiss tenured teachers.  Newark began immediately to fire teachers. In virtually all cases, state arbritrators rebuffed the efforts and, for a year at least, the teachers under attack kept their jobs.

“But they came after them again,” said Abeigon. “Those legal cases cost a lot of money.”

For those districts eager to break what’s left of job security and union support, the weakened tenure law provides potent weapons. Two consecutive negative evaluations can trigger a dismissal.  The state-operated Newark district has relied on public funds—diverted from programs and instructions—to pay its lawyers to pursue these cases, even when the law was against the state.  The NTU had to rely on income from dues.

Abeigon sees the hand of private, corporate interests behind this onslaught—and he is not wrong. Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), until recently headed by Newark’s Shavar Jeffries, receives much of its funding from private corporations and uses its clout to pursue an anti-union agenda. Unions, says DFER, represent a “dam” holding back school reform, a dam that must be “burst.”

With backing from DFER and others, Anderson and Cerf—and Gov. Chris Christie, the governor who appointed both of them—have relentlessly pressed for privatization of public schools in the cities, especially Newark.

The saddest part of this story is the dashed hopes inherent in the election of Ras Baraka as mayor in 2014. The NTU and other unions were essential in his victory over Jeffries—and then Baraka turned on the very organizations that made him mayor. And, in the process, cut a deal with Christie that provides for a gradual return of the state’s largest school system, not to popular control, but to mayoral control. That’s what it’s called when key members of the elected school board—including its president—are employed by the mayor.

But the NTU, too, has been compromised by its ties with Baraka. Its leaders apparently believe they do not dare anger the mayor—especially now, when the union is entering its second year without a contract and the union is counting on the support of City Hall if there is an impasse.

Abeigon insists his silence about Baraka’s seizure of control of the Newark schools will end if the union believes Baraka’s policies are harmful to teachers.

But it’s already clear Cerf, now Baraka’s ally,  is out to destroy the union—the administrators’ union was all but destroyed by Anderson and Cerf. The NTU was powerless to prevent attacks on the power of the union’s welfare fund. By its resort to hopes for charitable fund-raising, the union has shown it is facing difficult—maybe desperate—times.

The collapse of the union will eventually mean desperate times for its members.

I don’t know the circumstances of the private school teacher whose friends and colleagues are raising money to meet health care costs. I hope she comes through this soon and returns to her classroom. Teachers are precious to children and deserve our support.

I do know the NTU has fallen on hard times–primarily because of the power of the governor and those with whom Christie struck bargains. Including the mayor of the Newark. I hope the teachers of Newark find a way to right the terribly unfair balance of power in the city’s schools.

10 comments

  1. Becca fields

    Organized money and organized people create power. Rather than open a Go Fund me account the NTU president might want to focus on organizing the assets his union does have (and he seriously said the union does not have deep pockets?!?!!!!)

  2. Public Education Supporter

    Since Randi Weingarten is one of the main reasons why the Newark teachers’ union got such a raw deal on it’s post-Facebook-money contract, SHE should come help defend the Newark community and teachers’ union from the powerful education reformers who are literally dismantling public education in the city. She got her headlines for brokering that bum deal and has not been visible in Newark since. I’m sorry to say that a GoFund effort does not seem to me sufficient to fight these people who have all the power, money and legality (while Christie remains Governor) on their side. Newark needs a national spotlight shining on what’s going on and if Weingarten were truly committed to helping Newark, she could make that happen.

  3. J Parnell Babstatt

    Bob would you or any of your readers know anything about the Teachers Union Reform Network (TURN)? Its somehow coming to my needy district NJEA and I can’t find anything specific about the group’s role in “reforming” teachers unions. Should I be concerned?

      • J Parnell Babstatt

        Thanks TK. Is TURN working with other NJ schools? I’d like to contact someone with first hand experience with this billionaire funded “network.” Any information would be helpful.

        • TK 2016

          Have you considered the obvious approach, JP?

          There’s a lot of contact info on the TURN site. Since they — like so many — are eager “thought leaders”, I’m confident they’d be (initially, at least) happy to take your inquiry. Not meaning to be nosy here, just courteous. Since your response still includes a question, I’m not completely comfortable leaving it unaddressed. No burden on you to reply to this reply.

          I won’t comment on what you are about to read, see, and hear (links below), because I always think it best that people inform and develop their own views (part of what makes us beautiful – as distinct from merely managing to “look the part”) and I have only the slightest sense of what you are seeking in terms of testimonials, opinions, or witnesses.

          Are you presently positioned as a believer, or a skeptic, with regard to TURN? Neutral?

          Folks like TURN are full time kool-aid mixers and eager to convert people; first to their carefully curated vision, but then to their style, their language, their social and organizational structure, and, obviously, to feeding from, and breeding with, their network-driven model. First and foremost, their stated focus is the reconstitution of unions and union culture. They aren’t simply there to help. You also have to wonder, as we’ve all come to learn, what is in the water they are using.

          Then there’s the billionaire backing, which is never as innocent as a given billionaire would like you to believe. That kind of input (a high-profile, enormously wealthy, centrally positioned figurehead) can imbue an organization with both a mercenary quality and at least a veiled form of religious intensity. Some of these combinations verge on cult-like behavior. Some go way beyond that. These types of operators were once also known as a power players. Now they’ve been repackaged for the “new” public-private paradigm, which has them running under the already fraying banner of “venture philanthropy”.

          Wonder what they will come up with next.

          The “New” American Government?

          But that’s for futurists to ponder. These guys are definitely futurists.

          The TURN people keep careful lists and would therefore obviously know who they are (down to the last registered member), and they can, if they are feeling frisky enough, tell you where they are active and where they aim to be next. From that information (their footprint/s) you can get in touch with local union reps and find out how the party is going with their district membership. If, that is, they are willing to talk openly about it. The believers usually will. The skeptical need to watch their behinds some, though, because this is corporate — and that means doe-eyed and appearing to be always working toward a solid connection with the mothership. At least until you meet the measure of the “reborn”, at which point you will be accorded a different level of “respect”. Maybe you know the drill.

          If you want to listen in on some of other peoples’ conversations about TURN and their activities, that is readily accomplished on the web. People who post are generally happy to follow up with you in public or in private – pretty easy to do. Any time you commit in this direction is well spent, IMO, as homework, on your way to exploring your concerns and facilitating any face-to-face stuff you might later pursue or bump into.

          Good luck and stay smart.

          http://www.turnweb.org/conferences/northeast-turn-labor-management-collaboration-conference-2016-09-23/

          Meditation – for extra credit:

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PhZ0z8pBFw

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rKGpG0myDpg

  4. J Parnell Babstatt

    Thanks for your response TK, I’ll check out this information right away. I’ve noticed that no NJ schools are as of yet listed as TURN members–this might change soon. It seems a local has to invite TURN into a district and then . . what? It happens a noted education writer has recently posted something about this (and has other reports on this “network”)–and this report suggests my district is not the only one to be flirting with TURN.
    http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2016/09/how-unions-came-to-support-essa.html

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