In June 2017, the 17 school safety officers who work in Bridgeton’s public schools met with then-NJEA Field Representative Jim Jameson and NJEA network attorney Kevin McCann to discuss affiliating with NJEA.
As school safety officers, they play a crucial role in their schools – but one that was often misunderstood.
In other districts, school resource officers are posted and paid for by their local police departments. But since 1999, Bridgeton has had armed security in their schools. They were one of the first – and possibly the only – that is not affiliated with their local police department.
“Our positions help to provide a safe and secure learning environment for the students,” said Officer Dave McGuigan. McGuigan, who has worked in the district since 2000, was a leader in the push to unionize. He served for 27 years with the Bridgeton Police Department and was an active member of his union.
In fact, every one of the Bridgeton school safety officers had worked in law enforcement in area communities or with the NJ State Police.
“We work to create a relationship with students,” Officer Paul Hoffman said. “We spend time getting to know the students so that we don’t have any issues down the line. In addition, every one of us lives here in the community and we volunteer our time for community organizations and at events, so we get to know some of the students outside of school.”
“Just like our other school colleagues, this isn’t just a job for us; we’re part of the community,” Hoffman said. “Every one of the 17 school safety officers is either a native of Bridgeton or has lived here for more than 40 years.”
But things began to change, and the officers felt their voices were not being heard.
“We wanted a union to ensure that people were treated fairly and equitably,” said Officer Brian Murphy.
“The whole atmosphere has changed in the district,” McGuigan said. “We are experts in crisis management, school security, and safety procedures. We review the court orders related to custody issues that district administration simply doesn’t have the expertise in. So we were alarmed when we saw decisions being made arbitrarily that affected us, our working conditions, and the students and staff in the schools we serve.”
“This is a second career for all of us,” Hoffman said. “We all had our dream jobs. We didn’t choose this for money; we wanted jobs we would enjoy. But we found ourselves being pulled into things that weren’t necessarily appropriate, and the changing job descriptions meant that we were doing less of the things we felt were the most effective.”
“You need consistency for the students,” said Officer Rick Morales. “With the changes, we felt that it was unnecessarily confusing for students and the officers.”
It was a group decision to pursue affiliation with NJEA, but they did their homework first.
“We talked to teachers to see if they were happy with their union,” Hoffman said. “They overwhelmingly were. In fact, they gave us the contact information for the local NJEA office. And as their colleagues in the district, we saw what the BEA (Bridgeton Education Association) and NJEA did for their members.”
“We asked ourselves, ‘who can we get who knows education, our jobs, administration, and the community?’” Hoffman said. “We looked at the network attorneys that NJEA worked with, and Kevin McCann, who was very well-known to us from our involvement in our police unions, was a standout for us.”
In fact, the school security officers approached McCann about representing them, but McCann assured them that they would get far more out of joining NJEA.
“Legal assistance and contract enforcement are just a few of the things that NJEA provides its members,” McCann said. “If they hired me as an attorney to protect their interests, they would pay far more than the NJEA annual dues.”
Following their meeting with Jameson and McCann, the officers all signed representation cards saying they wanted to affiliate with NJEA.
The cards and a representation petition were filed with PERC.
The BEA was enthusiastic in welcoming the officers into the union, so the next step was to inform the board of the officers’ intent to unionize and ask the board for voluntary recognition.
Unfortunately, the board denied the request and attempted to fight affiliation through PERC.
In an attempt to derail the officers’ attempts to unionize, the school district changed their job titles. They had previously been known as Education Enforcement Officers. But the name change did nothing to disrupt the process, and only provided further evidence for the officers that they needed a union to protect their interests.
However, PERC rejected the board’s arguments and recognized the officers as a separate unit of the BEA and demanded that the district recognize them. By March 2018, all the membership forms were in and PERC officially recognized them.
The officers are now working to settle a new contract – their first as unionized school security officers. But Negotiations Chair Morales, who was on the negotiations team in his police union, is realistic. “We expect the board to drag negotiations out.”
However, the board cannot stall forever. If a year goes by without a deal, the BEA and School Safety Officers will be able to merge as one.
The BEA is already including the newly unionized officers in communications and activities. And the officers are enjoying the other perks that union membership entails, among them member benefits discounts and scholarships for the children of members.
Morales, who retired from the Millville Police Department in 2013, missed the discounts that his police union provided him as a member. So he is looking forward to taking advantage of NJEA and NEA’s robust member benefits discount programs.
“It’s important for members to understand the importance of belonging to a strong union, especially in light of the Janus decision and efforts by some politicians to strip rights from workers,” McGuigan says. “At the end of the day, you get what you pay for. We knew the power and the reputation of the NJEA and the BEA. I don’t understand why anyone would think they should be able to freeload off of what others have built and expect to get the same level of protection, service, and expertise.”
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