Blistan delivers annual “State of Our Union” at NJEA Delegate Assembly

Beginning in 2018, NJEA President Marie Blistan began the tradition of delivering an annual “State of Our Union” overview at the September Delegate Assembly meeting in place of a standard president’s report.

“I wanted to highlight the accomplishments, especially during our times of strife and take the time to celebrate the successes of our union as a collective body,” Blistan said. “I also wanted to note what we saw as challenges for this next upcoming school year.”

Blistan began her speech where she left off last year, by listing the challenges the association faced as we entered the 2019-20 school year. These included organized and well-funded anti-union campaigns aimed at dismantling NJEA’s role as a powerful advocate for teachers and educational support professionals (ESPs) in New Jersey, privatization threats against ESPs, amplifying the value of community colleges, diversifying the teacher workforce, and ensuring that the state meets its obligation to fully fund the pension system.

“Then there is perhaps our greatest challenge,” Blistan said. “A challenge that never ends or subsides: the challenge to remain relevant to our members, the challenge to engage our members in our work. Because when our members are engaged, the work that we do, the advocacy that we pursue is our members’ work!”

Retaining and expanding membership

“I am happy to report that the evidence of our efforts reflects the support of our members and the support of our new people entering the profession,” Blistan said.

Blistan reported on the concerted effort made by NJEA members and staff to promote membership. Using the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act of 2018, local associations in every region of the state have identified potential members for dedicated outreach. Blistan made special note of increased transparency in membership procedures and a new digital membership form available at njea.org/join.

“As an example of the fruits of this labor the Cherry Hill Education Association in Camden County, has just reported that all the new incoming potential members, the largest group of potential new members in its history, joined the union,” Blistan said.

Blistan also addressed Rosenblatt v. Jersey City, a case that sought to end negotiated agreements that provide for full-time-release presidents. In addition to winning a stay in the New Jersey State Supreme Court of an adverse decision, members rallied around their presidents in locals where full-time-release presidents were assigned district work.

“The support sent a message to boards of education that members value their leaders and this work and also educated the newer members on how quickly their jobs could be at the whim of politics rather than the professional treatment that they have earned,” Blistan said.

Blistan lauded the work of the NJEA Early Career Network.

“Since the attacks began on our profession almost 10 years ago, we all also know educators who began in our profession and left,” Blistan said. “The NJEA Early Career Network created and provided online training to support our members in the topics that they identified.”

These topics included programs and events covering student loan debt, wellness, what NJEA has to offer, social events, and help in the early years in the profession or on the job.

Responding to the pandemic

“It’s not surprising that, despite a pandemic, despite the chaos caused by the pandemic, and despite unprecedented challenges, NJEA members also kept learning,” Blistan said.

NJEA provided members with up-to-date information and guidance on representing members’ and students’ interests through three new websites. Learning.njea.org was developed to offer professional development webinars. NJEA.org/covid provides health and safety information, as well as guidance from the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) and Department of Health. NJEAtogether.org provides resources and ideas for remote teaching and an opportunity for members to share their stories and for members of the public to thank educators.

Blistan also highlighted “NJTV Learning Live,” which was created by New Jersey Teacher of the Year Kimberly Dickstein Hughes in conjunction with Vice President Sean M. Spiller, the NJDOE and NJTV. The show provided televised lessons for grades 3-6 and four hours of daily programming taught by our outstanding educators. It began April 6 and ran through June. 

“We didn’t just learn, we shared the incredible stories from our members—in every job classification—from communities around the state,” Blistan said. “We created special public media campaign—TV commercials as well as social media ads, all showcasing our members—to reinforce that schools were open and working, and to highlight the importance of ESPs during remote learning.”

Blistan also reported on NJEA’s standards for reopening including the association’s comprehensive report, the NJEA Education Recovery Plan which has received national recognition. She pointed out that when school buildings were closed in March one of NJEA’s first actions was to urge the governor to make sure all employees should continue to be paid. One of the first things the governor did, Blistan noted, was to issue an executive order that directed all districts to pay all school employees during the remote learning. 

She commended the work of the NJEA Research and Economic Services Division for its School Reopening Survey, which over 27,000 members responded to, and the intentional focus of NJEA Member Benefits to respond to member’s needs in a critical time.

“This is a tribute to the work that NJEA did to get a governor elected who respects public education and school employees, all of whom saw the relevancy and value of their union voice!” Blistan said.

Representing members

“As educators, we deserve to be well compensated for our work, and as a union, we continue to fight for respect through decent compensation and quality, affordable health benefits,” Blistan said. “We changed Chapter 78 to Chapter 44. In doing so, we put money back in our members’ pockets without losing benefits.”

In addition to a discussion of the health benefits relief bill, Blistan hailed the enactment of the two ESP Job Justice bills, which provides educational support professionals (ESPs) with due-process rights and protections against privatization of their work.

“The attacks against our ESPs to privatize and fire them without due process continued this past year, and so we became even more committed to getting our two ESP bills passed through the legislature so that Gov. Murphy could sign them into law,” Blistan said.

Murphy signed the due-process bill on Aug. 13 following its June passage in the Legislature. On Sept. 11, he signed the anti-privatization bill, which had initially passed both houses of the Legislature by June. But differences in the bill needed to be reconciled before it could be sent to the governor.

Blistan also addressed the work of representing ESP members’ interest at the bargaining table.

“Throughout this year, our Research and UniServ divisions continued to assist our locals with collective bargaining, and our latest information from research is that our ESPs are beginning to achieve increased salary settlements.”

Diversifying the educator workforce

“We don’t just talk about diversifying the educator workforce, we work at it,” Blistan said. “From our Professional Development (PD) and Organizing divisions to Human Resources to the Executive Office to government relations, there was an intentional focus to reach out and address our racial and social justice priorities.”

With an NEA Media Grant through the Communications Division, NJEA ran parallel and intersecting medial campaigns to encourage more people of color to pursue careers in public education to encourage all potential college students to pursue New Jersey Community Colleges.

Blistan noted the work of staff in the Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division for launching NJEA’s REAL Movement: Racial Equity, Affirmation and Literacy as well as leading RISE: The Radical Imagination Summit for Educators in July.

Through the Organizing Division, the Members of Color Network has grown into a core part of NJEA within less than a year, holding meetings and conversations with members in every county, and helping build an association with leaders and staff who represent the diversity of the state.

Blistan noted that one indicator that the association is moving in the right direction was increased participation by members of color in the annual NJEA Jack Bertolino Summer Leadership Conference. In 2019, 234 members of color attended the conference; in 2020, 467 attended—an 83% increase.

Blistan pointed to NJEA’s commitment to the Amistad Curriculum mandate, including the creation of the Amistad Journey—an NJEA-funded program through the NJDOE that will take educators to the sites of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Africa and the U.S.

Blistan also pointed to NJEA’s work with its own staff.

“We continued to encourage both governance and staff to participate in an intense three-day training called Undoing Racism,” Blistan said. “Our session last fall yielded over 80 staff members and governance leaders participating.”

The NJEA Human Resources Division partnered with the NJEA staff union, the United Staff Association, to form a Design Committee and a Feedback Committee to offer trainings in unconscious bias. 

Blistan also discussed NJEA’s hiring practices.

“As we work to continue to diversify our teaching force, we are also dedicated to diversifying our staff,” Blistan said. “As one example, for the most recent two years, we’ve hired 38 consultants, 82% were female and 61% were members of color. Since our consultant pool is often on the track for full-time employment, this is significant. This is change.”

Consultants are NJEA members who are part-time staff members in the UniServ, Professional Development, Communications, and Research divisions.

The challenges ahead

As during her 2019 address, Blistan concluded her remarks by looking to the challenges ahead.

“Reopening plans and working in any form throughout the COVID pandemic will continue to be the primary goal to address the challenges and needs of our members in the coming months,” Blistan said. “We are working to ensure our members are prepared, protected and ready to lead the way and are going to demand the resources for health and safety and for the education of our students.”

She noted the inequities that have long existed in our school system from a statewide perspective.

“We are committed to getting through this pandemic, learning from our experiences, and addressing those inequities as we move forward,” she said.

Blistan discussed the need to elect Joe Biden as the next president of the United States.

“NJEA is a nonpartisan union as we do not vote based on ‘party’ lines,” Blistan said. “We vote for public education. It’s crystal clear that Vice President Joe Biden, and his running mate Kamala Harris, are the only candidates who support our profession, who support public education, who support unions and our members!”

Blistan also discussed the challenges for fairer charter school legislation, the protection and fortification of public education from Pre-K through community college, the full funding of the pension system, high-quality health benefits in retirement, and adequate funding of public education.

“New Jersey’s public schools were rated Number One in the nation last week for having the best quality public schools,” Blistan said. “That is a testament to our members and a testament to this union, which has advocated and fought for working conditions that enable us to provide the learning conditions conducive to student learning!”

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