Understanding the job justice bills

After years of waiting and working, educational support professionals (ESP) in New Jersey return to schools this September with enhanced—and long overdue—job protections. As of press time in mid-August, one of the two bills has passed into law, and all indicators point to the second bill becoming law in the near future.

Known as the job justice bills, the two bills were part of a package that NJEA members fought for as part of a two-year campaign that began in August of 2018.

ESPs and their certified colleagues engaged in the campaign in countless ways. For nearly two years, thousands of NJEA members sent emails, made phone calls, met with their legislative representatives in Trenton and in their district offices, participated in electronic activism—posting on social media and sending text messages—and hosted dozens of rallies urging lawmakers to pass the bills. They had passed through the Democratic-controlled Legislature only to be vetoed by then Gov. Chris Christie in 2011. Members knew that many legislators had previously supported those bills and we reminded them of that.

After actions taken by NJEA members, and despite a global pandemic forcing schools to operate remotely, the bills passed through the Legislature in 2020. One of the job justice bills is now law, while the other bill is closer than ever to becoming law.

The bills took nearly two years to pass, but NJEA members never lost sight of the goal. Both job justice bills were passed by the Assembly in March of 2019 with overwhelming majorities, but they were not taken up in the Senate before the end of the legislative session.

Both bills were reintroduced in the new legislative session that began in January of 2020. While in the previous legislative session the bills had moved slowly in the Senate, this time was different. After nearly two years of advocacy by NJEA members, the Senate passed both job justice bills in March by overwhelming majorities. In the Assembly, they passed for the second time in as many years in June. 

ESPs now have the comfort of knowing their positions are safe from the arbitrary whims of those who wield institutional power.

“We call these bills the ’job justice’ bills because they will provide professional equity to our schools’ hardest-working employees,” said NJEA President Marie Blistan. “From cafeteria workers and security guards, to bus drivers and grounds workers, to teacher’s aides, paraprofessionals and secretaries, to custodians and school maintenance workers, educational support professionals are the rock that public schools stand on. The success of our schools starts with the people who run the schools. These bills moving ever closer to law symbolize and acknowledge the contributions of more than 50,000 educational support professionals.”

Due process law: strongest in nation

ESPs now have the comfort of knowing their positions are safe from the arbitrary whims of those who wield institutional power. After being passed twice through the Assembly in the last two years, and once through the Senate, Gov. Murphy signed the bill into law on Aug. 13. It is one of the strongest laws of its kind in the nation, and ESPs will feel the security provided by the bill right away.

In the technical language of the law, it extends to nonteaching employees of local, county, or regional school districts, boards, or commissions the to right to submit to binding arbitration any dispute regarding whether there is just cause for disciplinary action.

This means ESPs have due-process protections similar to their certified colleagues as public school employees. With these essential protections in place, students will gain more consistent interactions with educators and build valuable relationships with them over the years.

“This win is about fairness and stability for our students,” said NJEA Vice President Sean M. Spiller. “This law means that ESPs can perform their jobs without the threat of being let go or fired for unjust reasons. Consistency in these positions means students will have more harmony in their school buildings. This law means ESPs can better serve their school communities, which is a win for public schools, achieved through union activism.”

Privatization protection passes both houses, expected to become law

The second job justice bill passed both houses of the New Jersey’s Legislature. However, because two separate versions of the bill existed in their respective legislative houses, it has not yet been sent to the governor’s desk to be signed into law. Even though it’s not yet law, all parties involved have pledged to iron out the differences in the coming months and send it to Gov. Murphy’s desk.

Once passed, the bill will provide common-sense job protections for ESPs employed by New Jersey’s public schools. Right now, a district may attempt to privatize ESPs at any time, even during the life of an active collective bargaining agreement. If passed into law, this would prevent that practice that often leaves ESPs and communities and educators organizing against privatization.

This bill would prohibit employers from entering into subcontracting agreements during the term of an existing collective bargaining agreement. Once a collective bargaining agreement expires, an employer would be permitted to enter into a subcontracting agreement only if: the employer provides written notice, and the employer offers the majority representative the opportunity to meet and discuss the decision to subcontract and negotiate over its impact.

The bill would also mandate that each employee replaced or displaced because of a subcontracting agreement would retain all previously acquired seniority and would have recall rights if the subcontracting terminates.

“It’s a bill that just makes sense” said NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Steve Beatty. “It’s no secret that students need stability and consistency in their learning environments to thrive, and that’s what this bill will provide. ESPs deserve respect offered by the collective bargaining agreements that local associations negotiate at the table. This bill enhances the collective bargaining process’s importance for both union members and communities alike.”

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