Paterson Education Association members and supporters flanked Paterson’s John F. Kennedy High School on Saturday while the district held a job fair. Despite inclement weather, PEA members were not deterred. They stood at each end of the campus driveway, and on a busy corner in between, holding signs saying “Fair Contract Now” and “Enough Is Enough” as job-fair attendees arrived for interviews.
Car horns beeped in support and members continued to flood the sidewalks throughout the morning, despite the cold and rainy conditions. John Setteducato, a captain for the Association, used a bullhorn to lead the crowd in chants of “Settle Now!”
One PEA leader spoke about past district job fairs when the administration and association worked together to meet and greet potential employees. She described setting up a table in the high school, handing out information to potential future members, and long lines wrapped around the high school at past events. But now, she said, everything is different. For the last two years, PEA has not taken part in the job fair. This year, though, the association decided to get the message out that it is unacceptable for anyone to work under the conditions facing PEA members.
While the camaraderie among members at the rally was great, feelings of discouragement were also evident. PEA’s 3400 members have been working under an expired contract since June 30, 2010. Among other things, that means that while employees’ contributions toward the cost of health benefits and pensions have increased dramatically, salaries have been frozen and PEA members have watched their take-home pay decline steadily over those years.
Stories of severe financial difficulties are common among members. Far too many have lost homes to foreclosure or have had cars repossessed because of the financial hardship resulting from lack of a new contract. Others tell stories about their children who have had to defer admission to college because of financial insecurity or because their college savings have been whittled away to pay other bills over the last four years. Living paycheck-to-paycheck and declaring bankruptcy were common themes as members sadly discussed their situations. One teacher of 37 years said, “We cannot continue to go backwards. I have worked in Paterson my whole career. When I should have a solid financial plan and situation, I find that my family is on a financial cliff. Where else can you be part of the professional working class society and still be in danger of not making ends meet? It is a shame.”
PEA president Peter Tirri said that negotiations continue and that he is hopeful a settlement is near. With Christopher Cerf’s resignation as Commissioner of Education, he said, there has been renewed progress. Without revealing any confidential issues, Tirri stated that what he wants for his Association is a fair contract, and not one like the recent Newark contract.
And with that said, he continued marching with his fellow PEA members.