I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, January 29, 2015

How The Teachers Union in Jersey City May Have Started To Win

Every once in a while, a group of teachers comes together and says: "Enough."

It happened a few couple of years ago in Chicago, when Karen Lewis rallied her fellow teachers and took on Rahm Emanuel and his rubber-stamping board of education. And now it appears to be happening again...

In, of all places, Jersey City -- thanks, in part, to the leadership of Ronnie Greco.

Greco is the president of the Jersey City Education Association, the local teachers union and the largest local affiliate of the New Jersey Education Association. I reached out to Greco earlier this month; we eventually had a lengthy conversation, followed by email exchanges, about what is happening in his city's schools.

The size of the JCEA alone is reason enough to pay attention what is happening in the district. But I believe teachers and union leaders all over the country can learn lessons by studying how Greco and his fellow Jersey City teachers are fighting back against the political forces that have sought to undermine their association.

Let's get some context first:

The Jersey City Public Schools have been under state control since 1989, making it the first city in the country where local citizens lost control over their schools. As I reported back in 2012, then-Education Commissioner Chris Cerf colluded with then-Councilman -- and now Mayor -- Steve Fulop to install Marcia Lyles as the state superintendent of schools.

Cerf pushed the ethics envelope (once again) when he met with in private with board members who had been elected, but had not yet taken office, to push for Lyles to get the job. Both Lyles and Cerf are graduates of the infamous Broad Academy, a pipeline for getting corporate-styled "reformers" into key education leadership positions. There's little doubt that Broad considers the leadership of New Jersey's second-largest school district to be a valuable trophy.

But Broad graduates are notorious for heavy-handed, top-down, and often failed leadership. Does Lyles fit this pattern? Is she, according to Greco, qualified to lead the district?

"Absolutely not," says Greco. "She came from failure; that’s what she knows. She came from what was designated as a failing school district in Delaware. Do I believe in the term 'failing school district'? No, that’s a label that the government drops on us based upon benchmarks that they set and they set them higher and higher every year and keep changing the method in which you have to achieve those benchmarks. 

"But as a person? No. She has no personality, she has no social skills, she has no people skills, from the folks I speak to up in the central office she has no managerial skills. She’s a puppet of [NJ Governor] Chris Christie. She was a puppet of [former schools chancellor] Joel Klein over in New York City. She’s one of these people… she’s a suitcase traveler, bouncing from state to state, tacking on a nice pension. She has no connection here."

Unlike Lyles, Greco has deep roots in his community. His father was a teacher in Jersey City for 40 years; Greco taught for 17 years himself before he took over the leadership of JCEA. And it's Greco's connection to that long institutional memory that gives him a heightened insight into what is happening to Jersey City's schools, and what it takes to fight back. For example:

The JCEA has been working without a contract for two years. According to Greco, the last offer from the board was "three years of zero increment," which, in the lingo of teachers contracts, translates to no raises. That may have been defensible back in the recession; however, New Jersey's teachers have been traditionally underpaid compared to the rest of the region. And it's not as if Jersey City's teachers, living in one of the most expensive labor markets in the world, are asking for anything more than a fair increase.

After repeatedly being rebuffed by both the board of education and the state superintendent, and after repeated delays from the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC), things finally reached a tipping point this past fall. The issue was "Report Card Night," a three-times-a-year event similar to many districts' back-to-school nights.

"In my 17 years as a teacher, Report Card Nights were always conducted from 6:30 to 8:00 PM," says Greco. "And there was one in September at back to school night, and one in November, and one in April. It was always 6:30 to 8:00 PM. And in terms of working an hour-and-a-half in the evening, that gave us specific days in the calendar where we would get out an hour-and-a-half early.

"We're in contract negotiations as you know. One of the board's proposals reads as such: 'Change report card sessions from 6:30 to 8:00 to 6:00 to 8:00.' That's a proposal. So what the superintendent did was on Friday, October 18, 2013, she calls me. And she said: 'I am changing it to 6:00 PM.'

"And I said, 'Dr. Lyles, first of all, it's negotiable. Second of all, that's one of your proposals. And that's how we get an hour-and-a-half off on other days; it's a trade off with the time. It's an established past practice here from my forefathers. It's a long-standing tradition.'"

But Lyles refused to negotiate with Greco, and she refused to budge on changing the time. "I met with the superintendent five different times," says Greco, "and her response was always very simply: 'I am not discussing it.' End of story, didn't want to entertain me, that was it."

Again, this is a hallmark of Broad-style leadership, which draws from the "Cult of the CEO" and creates an autocratic and dismissive atmosphere in school districts. Lyles wanted her Report Card Nights when she wanted them, past practices and her teachers' ability to negotiate be damned.

So Greco filed a grievance in October of 2013. PERC eventually confirmed the meeting start time was negotiable. Even still, in an effort to show good faith, Greco and his team initially decided to comply, and report at 6:00.

"November 2013 came along and we complied: the law in NJ says you comply, then you grieve. So we complied. We came in at 6:00 PM in November. We came in at 6:00 PM in April because PERC never came back with a decision. Finally, in the summer of 2014, this past summer, we got an answer from PERC: 'Since you are in negotiations, you should negotiate it.' So that was enough for me; I decided, 'We're coming in a 6:30 and we will negotiate it.'

"I hadn't spoken to the superintendent since August. I said to one of her chiefs we were coming in at 6:30 this time, and he said, 'Oh, no, it's 6:00.' And I said, "No, it's 6:30." And she said, "Oh, no, Dr. Lyles wants 6:00 PM." In my head I thought, 'Screw this. PERC came back and said negotiate it. And the superintendent still refuses to negotiate.' So, we printed up 4,000 signs, and I thought: 'This is a test run for a strike.'"

I had to stop and ask Greco at this point why he didn't just give in again. It seems like a trivial issue; why fight over something so small?

"It’s such a minor thing," admits Greco. "I mean, 6:00 PM was something in good-faith negotiations. We could have agreed to come in at 6:00 PM, just because we could get something as a trade-off that we want. The argument with most of the teachers that I speak with is and my union reps is: 'We’re already here.' People are already staying after school until 6:30. Why not just start the session at 6:00 PM because we’re already here?

"But it’s the manner in which it was done. 'We’re not doing it. We’re not honoring the negotiations. Forget that it was one of our proposals. To hell with what the PERC says. To heck with a state agency. To heck with the union.' So that’s why people are just fed up with this superintendent. She just does whatever she wants."

And so, in November of 2014, the teachers stood their ground and came in at 6:30, as they had done for years. And that's when Lyles really began to lose control of her district:

"The report card nights were in November," says Greco. "The superintendent conducts regular meetings with all her principals. Whenever there's a principal's meeting, there's always a dozen or so principals that give me a call or text and tell me what was just discussed in the meeting. So the PSA (Principals and Supervisors Association), the principal's union, their president was adamant that the teachers be reprimanded, and that we should be written up and we should be docked pay. Because the principal's union president, who was a principal, is up the superintendent's backside.

"But many of the people in the room, the principals, were saying: 'We're not writing the teachers up.' The superintendent got very angry because now these are her soldiers who are going against here. And on the report card night -- because it was a cold night, the temperature had dipped into the 30s -- numerous schools had coffee and hot chocolate, and the parent councils were out there with food and bullhorns to show their support for us. So it was kind of a setback to the superintendent.

"And then two or three weeks went by and nothing was done yet, and she told the principals: 'I want them written up!' And the principals were just refusing to do it. So finally, in December, an edict was issued by Maryann Dickar -- she's the superintendent's right-hand lady, a transplant from New York, who came to Jersey City with a $90,000 raise -- and she told the principals: 'By December 12 you must write these people up.' So the principals were really upset, the superintendent provided them with a fill in the blank form letter. It was a letter of insubordination. The principals had to sign it.

"Now most principals that I speak to... those principals gave out the letters, put them in one folder, so technically they're on file at the office. But most principals have not put them in the teachers' individual files. What it was was a letter of reprimand. I mean big deal."

Understand that is how the state-run districts in New Jersey are managed these days. As in Newark, a war has broken out between the state superintendent (and her closest lieutenants) and the rest of the district. And, as in Newark, both the principals and the teachers are standing up and fighting back.

"Most teachers have had it," explains Greco. "People have all the pressures with the standardized testing. And the dilapidated facilitates and the superintendent. And we have a RAC [Regional Achievement Center] monitor, Cathy Coyle [assigned by the state to oversee the management of JCPS], she's constantly fighting with people. Coyle is collecting a full pension from the state as well as a full salary from the State Department of Education, to monitor Jersey City.

"So people just don't care anymore. The superintendent is so disrespectful, she doesn't speak to principals, she doesn't speak to teachers, she doesn't speak to parents."

And here's where the story gets most interesting. Because Greco and JCEA decided it wasn't enough to simply stand it opposition to the state; they had to get people on to the board of education who would be willing to negotiate in good faith. 

One of the reasons the board had become so intractable was that candidates were being funded by billionaire "reformers," including hedge fund manager David Tepper, who stood behind Chris Christie's education agenda. Greco knew he couldn't match Tepper's money; he could, however, rally his teachers and parents, many of whom were his long-time neighbors. And, thanks to the union's work, a slate of three candidates supported by the JCEA clobbered the opposing slate in this past fall's election.

"We were fortunate to team up with NJEA and Garden State Forward," says Greco. "Obviously we didn't have a big bank account. I was looking at the ELEC [New Jersey's campaign finance reporting system] report today. Parents for Excellence [the opposing slate] has donors from all over the country: pharmaceutical companies and bankers and so on.

"But we did a good job -- I keep telling my members, we have to pat ourselves on the back. The community really came out and helped us. I think that's telling of the community's attitude, because we had so many parents that helped us, volunteered on election day, and they knew we didn't have the funds to pay people. And they said, 'Give me that t-shirt, I want to campaign, I want to help put these people in.' And then teachers, paraprofessionals, secretaries, custodians -- everyone who helped us.

"That's why we believe we were victorious, because we had the boots on the ground, despite the state RAC monitor Cathy Coyle openly campaigning for Parents for Excellence, donning a shirt and handing out literature.”

Greco's ability to mobilize the community in favor of his teachers has not gone unnoticed -- particularly by Mayor Fulop. Even though Fulop was involved in bringing Lyles to Jersey City, and even though he has previously backed anti-union candidates, Fulop has started to open up to the legitimate concerns of the JCEA.

"I’m going to say we both got an education," says Greco. "He got an education by hanging out with me, and I got an education from being with him and grasping what his viewpoint was, what his perception of what the Jersey City Schools were. And he got a bit of an education as to how I was looking at him and viewed him. I thought he was very radical and wanted to come in here and just turn the school system upside down. And he believed I was here to just keep what he thought was the status quo. 

"Mayor Fulop has some very progressive, yet traditional ideas on how to approach addressing the needs of Jersey City’s Public School system. He has certainly included the JCEA in those conversations.”

"The board president, Sangeeta Ranade, and Marcia Lyles just seemed to have gone rogue. I have observed how they just do not listen to or entertain what the Mayor has to say. It is clear they do not listen to or heed the Mayor’s advice. And then I would scratch my head," laughed Greco.

"But then I saw some public displays of what was going on, but even then I would say, 'Well, this is just a smokescreen.' And I even told the mayor that. And he said, 'Ronnie, it’s not a smokescreen. They don’t listen to me.'

"The mayor has said: 'I want both sides to sit down. This has gone on long enough. Settle the contract.' But they don’t listen to the mayor. Since then the board president has blasted him in the newspapers. 'I don’t listen to you. You’re the mayor; I’m the board president.' So there’s no respect there or collegiality among these people.

"I mean, when you insult parents at board meetings, you refuse to answer them at board meetings, when parents come up to speak and you’re on your phone, they really are just disrespectful people."

Is this disrespect due, in part, to the lack of local control in Jersey City over its schools? Would ending the state's two-decade reign change things for the better?

"Yes, I do believe it would change," says Greco. "I believe that the operation of the system would be more orderly. I think that the number of employees in the management would shrink. When we were locally controlled, the BOE office was in a small building on Erie Street. Now it’s in an old factory building. It’s 8 floors with hundreds and hundreds of people there. So as the state came in, it’s grown over the years.

"Every governor’s friends get sent up here. The law firms get contracts up here. I’ve discussed this with Mayor Fulop. We wouldn’t have 11 or 12 law firms on retainer. We wouldn’t have all these contractors and consultants and you name it."

Greco and the JCEA may have helped to elect a less stubborn slate of board candidates, but their work is far from over. No one in the local ever thought electing a less radical school board would immediately lead to a contract. But Greco believes there is now hope for a settlement, and a chance for real reform in Jersey City's schools:

"I’m a little optimistic. The new board was seated last night, they have a big task ahead of them, but I’m optimistic we’ll make some progress. Because I know Jersey City. And I know they have money squirreled away and their offer of three years still being frozen… they can do better than that. There’s where I’ll leave it at."

And perhaps that's the best lesson that Jersey City's teacher union and Ronnie Greco have to teach other locals in this state and the nation: sometimes you need to stand tough, and sometimes you need to make alliances. It's a tricky business; again, few did it better than Karen Lewis in Chicago.

But the JCEA may well be a source of hope: a new, shrewd unionism -- one that knows when to open a hand, and when to clench fist -- may be replicable. If JCEA gets a new contract this year, Greco may, indeed, offer us proof that the victory of the Chicago Teachers Union wasn't a fluke.

And that would be good news for teachers, good news for students, and good news for our public schools -- in Jersey City, and everywhere else.

Ronnie Greco, JCEA President.
This blog proudly supports all of the local associations of the NJEA and AFTNJ.


P. Grunther said...

Thank you JJ! This is an important message to get out and I plan to print out your blog and distribute it at my Education Association's executive meeting. Our situation is very different, i.e. suburban not urban, no state control, but the strategies and message are still applicable and useful to any Education Association. Great article - thanks again.

Anonymous said...

The idea that changing the time from 6:30 to 6:00 is an issue for the NJEA is why the public thinks the NJEA (and unions in general) are part of the problem. Such incidents are a normal part of the regular business world. You need to change times to meet the needs of the parents, and it's not workable to have an entire union decide on each of these decisions.

Giuseppe said...

I have to disagree with Jersey Parent. When a change in the contracted work day is made, it should be up for negotiations. It's the principle involved (the negotiated and contracted workday) that is the point of contention, not so much the extra 30 minutes. If a school board can arbitrarily add 30 minutes one year, it could easily keep adding to the workday year after year. Why have a contract if one party can just ignore the conditions of a contract arbitrarily. Either a contract has meaning or not.

Giuseppe said...

The main reason that "..the public thinks the NJEA (and unions in general) are part of the problem." is because there has been a 30 plus years war against unions by the GOP, right wingers, billionaires and the corporate media in general. Union workers are always portrayed as lazy, greedy thugs in the media. With the decline in unions because of a very aggressive policy of union busting, we also see a decline in wages, wage stagnation and an erosion of the rights and bargaining powers of the workers. The nation's largest private employer, Walmart, is rabidly anti-union; anyone who dares mention the word union at Walmart will be kicked out on trumped up charges. The public has been victimized by a tsunami of anti union propaganda. This propaganda is well financed by very powerful and very rich people.

Anonymous said...

I am in a union and stand by my original comment. Unions are important for the reasons expressed, but taking a stand about 30 extra minutes to meet with parents, seems belligerent and to miss the larger point of what good jobs teachers have (health benefits, vacations, etc...). There's a reason why unions are under attack and are declining, and it's not just the right-wing propaganda campaigns.

Duke said...

As always, G, well said.

Jersey Parent, I'd ask you to go back and read how the 30 minute issue unfolded. Greco gave in for an entire year on this, even though the mediator told them it should be negotiated. When JCPS wouldn't negotiate, however, he and his union said enough's enough.

If you and I agreed that you would do my taxes for $300, and you did them but I only paid you $290, would you accept the argument that it's only $10, and the problem with America today is too many greedy CPAs?

I hope not.

Anonymous said...

Duke, I like your analogy, but parents can view the situation another way. The CPA has agreed to do the taxes for a certain cost, but now finds it will take 30 minutes longer to do the taxes than she originally thought. Instead of spending that extra time to complete the job, she's going to refuse to file your taxes until you pay her more. The CPAs may feel that they just want to paid for their extra time; others may feel they are being extorted. And no one wants anyone using extortion when it involves their children's future.

Giuseppe said...

What Jersey Parent calls being belligerent is just the union exercising its rights to negotiate and/or contest its work conditions. Does JP want the union to be some kind of neutered paper tiger, a non offensive little boy scout afraid of its own shadow. Might as well not even have a union. Talk about extortion, that would be the school board that just laughs at the union, refuses to budge or negotiate and more or less dares the union to strike. Sorry, sometimes the union has to get tough and exercise its limited powers, sometimes a union has to resort to a strike because it is the victim of the school board extortion tactics. A strike is the last thing that should happen after all other options have been exhausted. The unions are cursed if they do and damned if they don't according to JP. Are the right to work states with no unions, neutered unions and no tenure that much better than NJ, educationally speaking? The only reason NJ teachers have decent pay and good benefits is because of the unions, it was no gift from the school boards. If you think that unions should just shut up and stand in the corner, then there is not much I can say to convince you otherwise.