NJEA members found themselves in a familiar position in early August: a politician was reneging on his promises while blaming NJEA and labelling the organization a “bully.” It was a typical Chris Christie move—but it was Senate President Steve Sweeney at the microphone.
And Sweeney took the Christie ploy one step further by calling for state and federal investigations into NJEA’s decision to withhold support from politicians who failed to live up to the promises they made during NJEA’s endorsement process.
Although while speaking Sweeney claimed that both NJEA and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) should be investigated, he named only NJEA in his publicly released official letter to the State Attorney General and the U.S. Attorney.
NJEA, singled out again.
It’s true that NJEA is the largest public employee labor union in the state.
But it’s also true that NJEA is a labor union that is 78 percent female.
According to Sweeney’s letter, “Rather than engaging in public issue advocacy focused on the education of our children, NJEA has diminished advocacy to engage in unprecedented tactics designed to extort public officials into undertaking actions that would benefit the pocketbooks* of its members.”
What he is writing here is that it’s OK for NJEA members to advocate vigorously for their students and public education, but not for the financial interests of their members.
What Sweeney’s actions imply is that NJEA members, who are predominantly female, should know their place.
And that their place is not in the deep end of the political pool.
What makes that statement even more suspect is that, for Sweeney, it’s not really OK for us to advocate for our students, either. Sweeney repeatedly called NJEA a “bully” in his Aug. 3 press conference. When asked to cite another example of NJEA’s bullying, he referenced NJEA’s 2007 opposition to his school consolidation proposal that would have created countywide school districts, a classic example of our members advocating for the best interests of our students.
NJEA employs the same tactics and techniques as other public- and private-sector labor unions, yet NJEA is singled out, time and time again. What’s the major difference between our union and others? Our effectiveness? Does being good at advocating for our members and our students place a target on us? Or is it something more? Is there a perception that attacking NJEA is an easy fallback strategy for politicians?
In this month’s issue of the NJEA Review, we look at the gender pay gap and how successful unions are at combatting that injustice. But there are deep-seated issues at play in the gender pay equality fight and it would be naïve to imagine that those same issues do not play some role here. Behavior that is acceptable—and even encouraged—in a man, such as negotiating for a salary increase or holding legislators accountable for their actions, is perceived as inappropriate in a woman.
It is a depressingly common tactic to attack women for behavior that is applauded in men, but NJEA members, regardless of gender, are very clear: when it comes to our students, our careers, and our profession, we have no intention of being a cash cow or the state’s nicest labor union. We’re here in the deep end of the political advocacy pool and we’re not getting out just because Sweeney says so.
*”Pocketbooks” is an interesting choice of words, wouldn’t you say?