NJEA welcomes Guttenberg to the association family
By Patrick Rumaker
Using the “Contact Us” link on most websites is a dicey proposition. The person sending the message never knows if a real human being is going to see it, and if they do, whether or not they’ll act on it.
But Kathryn Traflet, the former vice president of the Guttenberg Federation of Teachers (GFT)—now the vice president of the Guttenberg Education Association (GEA)—learned that when you contact NJEA, you get answers.
Her message, sent in May 2021 through the association’s “Contact NJEA” link, was simple and direct:
Our school—we are a one school district—currently belongs to AFT. We are looking into switching to NJEA. We want to get the ball rolling quickly. What is the process? Will someone be able to meet with us to explain the benefits of switching (either in person or virtually). I am not sure how we would go about all this.
Kathryn Traflet Guttenberg School District (Hudson County) GFT Union Vice President
For the few school districts in New Jersey that have bargaining units represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), it’s not NJEA’s practice to entice staff in those districts to switch their affiliation to NJEA. However, when any bargaining unit seeks to explore an affiliation, NJEA will respond.
Traflet’s message found its way to NJEA UniServ Field Representative Ed Stevens, who assists local associations in Hudson County, where Guttenberg is located. Stevens was quick to respond and, as Traflet and then-GFT President, now GEA President, Erin Mooney learned, his accessibility was no fluke. Stevens would be there for them—not just guiding them through NJEA’s affiliation process, but as a trusted partner ever since.
A small town and a city
Guttenberg is among the most densely populated municipalities in the most densely populated county in the most densely populated state in the U.S. In just under a quarter square mile, 11,500 people call Guttenberg home. It is four blocks wide and 13 blocks long. Wedged between West New York and North Bergen, those 13 blocks stretch down to the Hudson River, offering stunning views of Manhattan.
Like many such New Jersey communities, the wealth found along the riverfront does not necessarily extend inland. Nearly 14% of Guttenberg families live below the poverty line.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, 68% of residents identify themselves as Hispanic or Latino. For many students attending Anna L. Klein School, the district’s only public school, Spanish is the primary language spoken at home.
Many GEA members live in Guttenberg, and the community is the kind of place where everyone seems to know everyone else. The school is the heart of the community.
“The kids like being here,” Mooney said. “The little ones are more vocal about it—saying outright, ‘I love school’—but even the middle schoolers want to linger in the hallways after school, talking to their friends.”
“The vote to affiliate with NJEA was 110-0.”
Places like Joey’s Corner, a market across the street from Anna L. Klein School, are gathering places for the tight-knit community.
“It’s like a city, but it’s also a small town,” Mooney said. “It’s a truly unique place that really catches hold of you.
Eighteen years with AFT
Prior to 2004, Guttenberg’s teachers and educational support professionals (ESPs) were represented by NJEA. That affiliation dated back to 1971. But in the early 2000s, some staff in Guttenberg came to believe that the AFT would be more effective at bargaining their salaries. The potential relationship with AFT was enticing, in part, because the K-12 district to which Guttenberg’s K-8 students attended high school was already an AFT affiliate.
By 2021, most Guttenberg staff were either unaware that Guttenberg had ever been with NJEA or were not clear on the details leading to the switch to AFT. As they mulled over contacting NJEA, Traflet and Mooney investigated why the change occurred.
“We found that they weren’t happy with the contracts,” Mooney said. “In those years, there wasn’t a lot of funding going into school districts. I think it was just a tough time for every district.”
On paper, the salaries in the nearby K-12 district seemed to be better than the salaries in Guttenberg. So, despite the bargaining challenges statewide, the Guttenberg staff hoped they would do better with AFT than with NJEA and voted to change affiliation.
Until 2021, they didn’t look back.
Sorting through the issues
Where bargaining concerns were the impetus for change in 2004, concerns of an entirely different sort brought change in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic, which closed school buildings in March 2020, brought anxiety and uncertainty.
“COVID was the big thing because, especially when we were under the lockdown and teaching from home, we felt like we were in the dark,” Mooney recalled. “Things were changing so quickly, and we really could have used some representation to guide us.”
As the majority bargaining representative in nearly every school district in the state, with field offices across the state and a tradition of “doorstep” service, the NJEA field reps and consultants are uniquely positioned to bring the association’s resources—practical assistance, information and advocacy—to members and local leaders. Those resources—including a Trenton headquarters staff with expertise in research, government regulations, professional development, communications and member organizing—made it possible for NJEA help guide its members through the pandemic.
Traflet noted that most NJEA field reps brought another advantage: they were once teachers and ESPs themselves.
“Sometimes our AFT rep didn’t grasp what we saw as a big issue,” Traflet said. “That we don’t even get to go to the bathroom when we need to go, and how a seemingly minor change in a schedule could make that worse. It was hard for them to really understand. We just didn’t feel like we had the support we needed.”
Traflet noted that NJEA’s resources could have empowered them with the information they needed to advocate for members.
“We had a member who was retiring, and the district wouldn’t pay her for her unused sick time at the level she was entitled to—it was a difference of $15,000,” Traflet said. “Our rep at that time said that she wasn’t entitled to it.”
Traflet explained that the rep was relying on a surface reading of a law, but without the deep legal expertise that NJEA could have brought to bear, the rep didn’t see that that law didn’t apply to the retiree in question. Traflet was left digging into the law by herself to sort it out.
“Before we switched to NJEA, we were essentially sorting through all the legal jargon ourselves, and we’re not lawyers,” Mooney said. “If it wasn’t for Kate’s tenacity, I don’t know if that member would have gotten the correct payout. We needed the support of someone who could answer our questions or, at least, guide us to find the answers.”
Making the switch
Before putting affiliation with NJEA to a vote, Mooney and Traflet wanted to be sure their members had all the information they needed to make an informed decision. They invited Stevens and Tom DeSocio, also a UniServ field rep in the Hudson County office, to make several presentations to their members about what NJEA had to offer.
They also held several meetings with their members apart from Stevens and DeSocio to discuss the potential affiliation.
“People really reflected on it and were discussing it among themselves,” Mooney said. “Our members kept thinking back to COVID and how stressful it was. And it was stressful for us—not having the information we felt could help us guide our members through all the minutia.”
“Traflet noted that most NJEA field reps brought another advantage: they were once teachers and ESPs themselves.”
By September of 2021, Guttenberg was ready to take the vote necessary to disaffiliate from AFT and then vote to affiliate with NJEA. With about 120 members that year, the vote to disaffiliate from AFT was 109-1. The subsequent vote to affiliate with NJEA was 110-0.
“I was pretty proud of the turnout,” Mooney said. “There was excitement in the air. I think people felt empowered—they were taking this active step on their own.”
Negotiating with NJEA at the table
The Guttenberg Education Association is an all-inclusive local, meaning they represent all of the bargaining units in the district: teachers and other certificated staff, paraprofessionals, secretaries and custodians.
“When we went to the NJEA Summer Leadership Conference, I heard this advice for local presidents: ‘Make the union work for you—you shouldn’t be the one person who is expected to do it all. Everyone needs to show up and push,’” Mooney said.
With that in mind as they prepared for negotiations, GEA surveyed members, held meetings to elicit what members valued most for their next contract, and hosted workshops on topics such as what is and isn’t negotiable.
They also made sure that the GEA negotiations team more fully represented the membership. Rather than consisting solely of teachers, the team also included a custodian, a secretary, and a part-time aide.
Mooney noted that the part-time aides were “fired up” about the upcoming negotiations. One of the meetings with members to prepare for negotiations took place during the break between afternoon and evening parent-teacher conferences. The part-time aides came back for that meeting.
Among the items that part-time aides hoped would come out of negotiations was to receive a regular twice-per-month paycheck. Up to that time—rather than divide part-time aides’ hourly pay evenly across 20 pay periods—paycheck amounts would vary based on the district calendar. A check would be smaller following the holiday break, for example.
“They wanted to be able to financially plan for their families,” Traflet said.
In addition to reforming how aides are paid, GEA also negotiated a salary guide for aides. Until then, all aides received the same pay no matter how long they had been in the district.
“We have some really vulnerable students who need those one-on-ones aides, and they’re wonderful. They care so much,” Mooney said. “I think our longest serving part time aide has been here for 16 years, and they deserve so much more than they have right now. That salary guide is a good step with, hopefully, many more to come in the future.”
Mooney said that she feels more confident in her leadership following Guttenberg’s affiliation with NJEA. In addition to negotiations assistance, she sees value in the day-to-day service that NJEA can provide.
“I feel very lucky to be part of NJEA, especially with Ed Stevens as our field rep,” Mooney said. “Members come to me with questions and if I don’t know the answer, I feel confident that I can get the answer quickly. I’m not playing phone tag for a week.”
With their energized confidence, and this round of negotiations behind them, GEA leadership has what Mooney calls “a lengthy to-do list.”
“Our big focus this year is member engagement and education—just making us feel like more of a community, building our communication networks, making sure people feel informed and that they know who to go to if they have questions,” Mooney said.
She also wants her members to feel confident in following the contract and to stand-up for themselves and their colleagues when it isn’t followed.
“We have more of a voice now, we have advocates like Ed on our side, and we’re part of something bigger than our one town,” Mooney said. “We’re part of statewide community. After all, NJEA is ‘it’ when you think about education in New Jersey.”
Patrick Rumaker is the editor of the NJEA Review. He can be reached at email@example.com.