By Patrick Rumaker
When Steve Swetsky was the new president of the Washington Township Education Association (WTEA) in 1985, he had little experience as an association leader, but he wanted to do it all—especially negotiations. He put aside the conventional wisdom that the local association president shouldn’t also serve as the negotiations chair.
But Swetsky wasn’t really doing it alone. He was part of a group of members that formed a new leadership team in WTEA. Their NJEA UniServ Field Representative Gene Sharp offered the new leaders his guidance and support.
“Gene worked with us on our proposal,” Swetsky recalls. “We didn’t know anything, but Gene let us work our way through the process. We had a proposal that was a phone book. We went through everything. We were going to fix the world.”
As the team headed with Sharp into their first night of bargaining, Swetsky thought about the fact that being a local association president was his first leadership position in a union. He had never attended an NJEA Summer Leadership Conference. And most significantly, he had never sat at a bargaining table. But now he was headed in to be the spokesperson for what was soon to be the largest local association in Gloucester County.
“As we walked into the administration building I said to Gene, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing,’” Swetsky remembers. “Two things could have happened that night. Gene could have said, ‘Don’t worry, Steve, I got this,’ and he could have taken over speaking at negotiations. But instead he said, ‘Steve, don’t worry about this. You’ve got this. You’re not going to settle this contract tonight. You don’t even have to go through the whole proposal yet. Pick one thing in there you feel comfortable talking about and go in and talk about it.”
Swetsky talked about telephones.
In Washington Township at that time, the only available phones were in the building main offices, as was the case in most school districts around the state. In WTEA’s lengthy proposal, Swetsky pointed to the modest request that phones be installed in the faculty rooms.
“We’re not gonna talk about telephones, that’s an illegal topic of bargaining!” the board attorney exclaimed.
Not yet entirely familiar with the concept of what was legally in or outside the scope of bargaining, Swetsky soldiered on saying, “All right, we don’t have to talk about that, but how about if we do this: How about we come out to your offices tomorrow, and we disconnect all the phones in your law firm except the one in your office? And every time one of your employees needs to deal with your clients, they have to come knock on your door and ask you if they can use your phone.”
Swetsky explained that that’s what it was like for teachers when they had to make or return phone calls to parents. After a few more dramatic responses from the board attorney and some wrangling, the board agreed to install phones in the faculty rooms even though it was not something that could be written into the contract.
“Afterwards, Gene said, ‘That wasn’t hard, was it?’” Swetsky remembers. “’No,’ I said. ‘That was actually fun!’”
It was a small victory on that first night at the bargaining table, but it boosted the confidence of a new and inexperienced local leader.
“I tell that story a lot,” Swetsky says. “If Gene had taken over that night, I’m not sure I’d be sitting in this seat today. Gene would have taken over the bargaining. He would have been the chief spokesperson. But Gene knew that it had to be the members and their local leaders who were going to run their locals.”
That insight has been a recurring theme in Swetsky’s 40-year professional life. During the first 20 years he worked as a teacher, as a local association leader, and as an NJEA part-time UniServ consultant. The next 20 years he worked as a member of the NJEA staff serving as a UniServ field representative, an assistant director of the southern region of UniServ, and as the NJEA assistant executive director. It’s an insight he will carry into his role as NJEA executive director, succeeding Ed Richardson, who retired on Dec 1.
As a technology education teacher specializing in graphic arts at Washington Township High School, Swetsky was already predisposed to a style of leadership that seeks to empower others to take on leadership themselves.
“My goal in teaching was to teach a skill and then let the students go do it,” Swetsky says. “I brought the same philosophy to the role of president.”
After graduating from Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey), Swetsky began teaching graphic arts printing and other technology education classes at Washington Township High School in 1980. Printing was familiar to him. His father ran a one-person advertising agency called Creative Enterprises in Whippany, where his family lived.
“My father was disappointed that I didn’t go into business with him,” Swetsky says. “It took him a long time to come around. But he visited the classroom, and I showed him the shop and what my students were working on. He knew that I liked what I was doing and that in my career choice, I was making a difference.”
Swetsky wanted to be teacher as early as seventh grade.
“They had a graphic arts program in my junior high school, and I then went on to take graphic arts in high school,” Swetsky recalls. “I just thought my graphic arts teachers had the coolest jobs in the world.”
But the starting salary for a teacher in Washington Township—or in most school districts in 1980—was not the coolest in the world. On the same day that Swetsky signed his first contract as a teacher, which came with an $11,000 salary, he drove to the Deptford Mall to get a job at Cutler Camera. He needed the extra income to pay his rent.
“We ratified a contract shortly after I was hired,” Swetsky says. “The salary guide had 23 or 24 steps, and they added three more steps in that round of bargaining. I got up and asked a question about it at the ratification meeting and was told to sit down and was told ‘you haven’t been here long enough.’”
Swetsky is quick to add that he also had early positive experiences with his local union.
When the principal approached Swetsky about taking on a special needs graphics class—an additional teaching period in lieu of a duty period in the cafeteria—he was glad to be teaching rather than monitoring student lunches. But the association and the district had not yet negotiated a stipend for teaching an extra period.
On his behalf, and to defend the collective bargaining agreement, the WTEA vice president took the contract infraction to administration. Swetsky continued teaching the special needs graphics class but was relieved of a woodworking class.
By the time Gov. Thomas Kean Sr. signed landmark legislation in 1985 increasing the minimum salary for teachers to $18,500, Swetsky had more experience as a WTEA member. Like many districts in the state—the first several steps of the salary guide were below the new minimum salary. For first-year teachers this was a welcome surprise raise coming after only a few weeks on the job.
I have had the good fortune and opportunity to work with Marie, Sean, and Steve, who as a team of progressive partners in NJEA leadership look at NJEA as it could be rather than as it always has been.
While the increase in salary minimums has had a long-term positive effect on teacher salaries in New Jersey, those at the time who had worked years to get close to $18,500 were less than enthusiastic that new teachers were earning what more experienced teachers had taken so long to achieve. Steps on the salary guide were compressed to bring the lower paying steps up to the $18,500 minimum.
“I went from Step 7 to Step 2, and I was not happy,” Swetsky says. “They told me, ‘You went from fifteen-thousand to eighteen-five, you should be happy. I wasn’t.”
This time, rather than sit and wait, Swetsky decided to get involved. Standing in line at a bank on payday, another WTEA member, Rufus Jordan, who was behind him in line said, “If you run for president, I’ll run for vice president.”
Swetsky and Jordan found other members throughout the local association to create a new leadership slate to run for office in WTEA. They lost that election, but only by a few votes. The following year the slate ran again. This time they were successful.
As Swetsky becomes NJEA’s executive director, he will continue to apply a philosophy of leadership that empowers local associations and NJEA members to take the lead with support from an NJEA staff that is empowered to work creatively with members. Key to that is a shift from NJEA staff and leaders being perceived primarily as service providers, to an emphasis on staff’s role as partners with local and county associations in organizing members to empower them to take the lead.
NJEA President Marie Blistan, Vice President Sean M. Spiller and Secretary-Treasurer Steve Beatty acknowledge that the structures of NJEA can help, but also be a hinderance, in bringing members’ voices forward.
“I have had the good fortune and opportunity to work with Marie, Sean, and Steve, who as a team of progressive partners in NJEA leadership look at NJEA as it could be rather than as it always has been,” Swetsky says.
At the same time, Swetsky recognizes the privileges in his own life that have boosted his voice and moved him along his path to leadership.
“A recurring theme is that NJEA does not look like its membership,” Swetsky says. “Members of color would talk about the difficulty of organizing themselves and their members in an organization that does not look like them. Early career members would talk about the way they were treated in their locals and within NJEA by more senior colleagues. ESP [educational support professional] members would talk about how they never feel welcome in the ‘teachers union.’ NJEA staff would talk about how they were limited in opportunities for involvement, training and advancement—particularly among associate staff. More senior NJEA staff would talk about the fact that the organization was changing and didn’t appear to value the history of collective bargaining.”
Swetsky says that NJEA has always been good at crisis organizing—when a local association goes on strike or comes close to one, when ESP members are threatened with privatization, when a member is unfairly singled out by the board or administration—but that the association needs to take more time to listen and act upon the interests and values of it various constituencies.
“Members and staff have increasingly recognized the need to engage across NJEA and in the local and county associations differently, using the art and science of organizing to implement listening and more inclusive strategies in their work,” he says. “Member and staff groups have formed and been supported by the organization to engage in conversation on the realities of being a member of color, an ESP member, an early-career member, or an NJEA staff member who wants to engage in new ways with members to build power.”
But these new initiatives, Swetsky cautions, often run up against very powerful long-term structures that often limit, or even block, new ideas. These long-standing structures and practices can also lead to members feeling disempowered to take on roles, large and small, at every level of the association.
“All of us tend to gravitate toward people who look like us, think like us and talk like us,” Swetsky says. “People get ‘tapped on the shoulder’ or noticed because of that tendency, while others may be passed over. Members of color will speak highly of NJEA in the abstract, but when you ask about their personal experiences either in their locals or in looking at the NJEA Review or in so much else that NJEA does, they’re looking and not seeing themselves. We’re getting better, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
As NJEA’s newest executive director takes on the highest NJEA staff position, he reflects upon his own early experiences as an early-career member—that the first UniServ field representative that he worked with was there to support him and to instill confidence but not take over the work for him.
Steve Swetsky believes that there are many NJEA members from every constituency who, if only they are asked, empowered and trusted would become more involved in leading the organization.
“To build a stronger, more powerful union, we must ask our members and potential members what they value and what they care about,” Swetsky says. “We should build our union based on what members identify as important rather than what we think is important. This opens the doors to increased involvement and increased union power.”
In the end, Swetsky’s message for NJEA members is a simple one.
“It’s your union.”