Historic campaign rooted in member-led organizing

By Matthew Stagliano

After years of laser-focused organizing, Gov. Phil Murphy signed Chapter 78 relief into law on July 1, 2020. Then, on Aug. 13 Murphy signed one of the two job justice bills, enacting long-awaited job due-process protections to educational support professionals (ESP).

The second job justice bill passed through both houses of the Legislature, but because two different versions were passed in each house, it has yet to make it to Murphy’s desk. These new laws will change the trajectory of public education in New Jersey. Thousands of NJEA members participated in a historic campaign to get the bills written, sponsored and signed into law. 

“We did the impossible,” said NJEA President Marie Blistan. “Our members trusted in the actions called for by this campaign, and because they trusted in the actions and participated in them, we were heard. This proves one thing: there is nothing this union—our union—cannot accomplish if we all work together. We can move mountains. This campaign wasn’t easy, but we persevered for the future of our profession. I am indescribably proud of every member-leader, member and staff person that worked to achieve this historic success for the future of the schools we love so much.”

This historic accomplishment didn’t come easy, nor did it come without sacrifice, dedication and a steadfast belief in the power of unionism.

Nine years of waiting, WORKING

Jersey City Education Association members protest Ch. 78.

In 2011, then-Gov. Chris Christie signed P.L. 2011 c. 78—commonly known as “Chapter 78.” The law was hailed as “benefit reform,” but, as any NJEA member would tell you, the law did anything but benefit public school employees. Ch. 78 required NJEA members to contribute a higher percentage of their ever-increasing health care premiums every year, far outpacing any increase in salary. Consequently, the law decreased educator take-home pay in the nine years it lasted. It was unsustainable, unfair and caused undue hardship to thousands of families.

Also in 2011, Christie vetoed two bills that would have provided job security and job protections for many of public education’s most vulnerable employees: educational support professionals (ESPs). Both bills were passed by the New Jersey General Assembly and the Senate in 2011 only to be rejected by Christie.

It was time for a change.

A new approach

After seven years under Ch. 78 and almost no legislative movement to expand job protections for ESPs, NJEA members were clamoring for a more effective and universal approach to the health care and job security. In August of 2018, NJEA President Marie Blistan, along with Vice President Sean M. Spiller and Secretary-Treasurer Steve Beatty, formed what would become known as a Campaign Steering Committee. They appointed Patrick Manahan, regional director of NJEA UniServ South, chair of the committee that would include, at the time, six NJEA members and six NJEA staff members. 

“Our greatest strength is the collective action of our members,” said Manahan. “Having members and staff in the room together as part of the steering committee was so important because you had different perspectives and different talents. When you bring all of this together, you can create something that is truly unstoppable.”

The charge of the committee was to serve as a statewide action committee, organizing members into collective action throughout the campaign. It was the first committee of its kind in modern NJEA history; rarely have member-leaders made day-to-day, tactical and strategic decisions alongside NJEA staff. As the campaign went on, it evolved to include more NJEA members’ voices. The committee met for the first time in August of 2018, just one month before versions of all three bills were introduced in Legislature. It met regularly for the duration of the campaign.

Leaders take charge

After working for eight long years under the reality of the anti-education Christie, NJEA members knew that it was difficult to pass legislation that would benefit workers, schools and students. When Murphy was elected governor in 2017, with substantial support from NJEA members who organized a successful #Members4Murphy campaign, he shifted the political landscape, opening a long-closed door for policies that benefited working people. The bills had just been introduced in both houses of the Legislature and had a long way to go before passage. Even with the change in state leadership, many believed moving them would be impossible. After all, Ch. 78 had been passed by a Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“Our members felt cautiously optimistic,” said Sue Clark, president of the Gloucester County Education Association (GCEA) and member of the Steering Committee. “They were glad that we were going to do something to get relief and job justice, but, at the same time, everyone knew this was going to be a very heavy lift politically. We knew it would take a great deal of pressure, and that would involve all of our members. It was a big ask.”

The Steering Committee got to work. The 12-person team decided that to move the bills there was only one viable route: collective action. The team knew that moving all of the bills through the Legislature would require thousands of members working together to one unified end.

The group knew that if NJEA were to act with 200,000 voices speaking as one, they would need the local association presidents on board. On Sept. 20, 2018, Marie Blistan called the second all-presidents meeting in NJEA’s history. Each of the 495 presidents who attended the meeting committed to going back to their locals and have their members sign a petition.

“We took on a challenge that many people around the state laughed at,” Clark remembers. “They said we were crazy. They underestimated the determination of our statewide leadership and the tenacity of our membership.”

The petition, which Clark said set the stage for a successful campaign, would be delivered to strategically selected political figures at a time advantageous to moving the bills.

On Jan. 17, 2019, NJEA President Marie Blistan, along with her fellow statewide officers, and county and local presidents, deliver petitions demanding job justice to the Statehouse. They were singed signed by 116,150 NJEA members.

The petition read:

“As education professionals in New Jersey’s public schools, we are proud that our experience, expertise, and dedication have ensured our schools rank amongst the top three in the country. We care deeply for our students as we do for our own families. As professionals, we deserve job security without the constant threat of privatization. As professionals, we deserve quality, affordable health care. We cannot sustain bringing home less money annually that is the result of Ch. 78 legislation. We stand united that job security and affordable, high-quality, health care are basic rights of hard-working people—including educational professionals.”

Five months later, when the petition was delivered to legislators, 116,150 members had signed it, achieving for NJEA another accomplishment of historic proportions: more than 70% of all active NJEA members had signed the same petition. The campaign was real.

Owning the work

As the weather got cooler, changes happened within the campaign: the Steering Committee expanded to include more NJEA members to amplify their voices, lobby days were scheduled for every month, and postcards were delivered to lawmakers in Trenton at an unprecedented rate.

On Jan. 17, 2019, when NJEA hosted a Lobby Day attended by over 140 NJEA members, 12,819 postcards urging legislators to sponsor and pass all three bills had been sent. It was on this cold January day that members delivered the petitions collected in the previous three months to Gov. Murphy and other legislative leaders, urging them to support the bills. NJEA members were acting in unison across the state, and it was making a difference, especially for the bills aimed at providing job justice for ESPs.

“This was a grassroots movement” said Chris Mueller, president of the Passaic County Community College Administrators Association and member of the Steering Committee. “Information flowed seamlessly from rank-and-file members to leadership through the Steering Committee. Members were more informed about the issues and their potential impact on their lives, so they felt more inclined to get engaged in the campaign.”

In January, the bill providing ESPs with due process job protections had earned 16 sponsors in the General Assembly and the anti-privatization bill had earned 12. The Ch. 78 relief bill had 20 sponsors in the Assembly, up from three back in September. It was clear that legislators were getting the message, but something more needed to be done.

“From the standpoint of our ESP members,” said Mueller “this had potential to be very big win for us because we could negotiate in good-faith with our institutions, without the threat of privatization at the conclusion of the process.”

Another shift transformed the campaign again. Members started asking the Legislature to pass all three bills by asking them to “Fix The Unfairness.” Taking it a step further, the campaign began to look like a #RedForEd campaign, which had led to statewide walkouts in other states the year before over issues such as compensation, health care and job protections. Red pins, red scarves, red signs, and red shirts appeared throughout the state reading #RedForEd #FixTheUnfairness and #WeAreWorthIt, and not long after, legislators knew exactly what those three terms meant.

Stemming from discussions during the Steering Committee meetings, NJEA members began to participate in separate, but collective, actions across the state. Led by members and organized by member-leaders, NJEA members gathered in malls across the state, all wearing red. In all, more than 1,000 members wore #RedForEd and gathered and walked in malls to send a message to their legislators that they were not afraid to exercise their power.

NJEA staff began going into schools every Wednesday to talk with members in their schools and about the bills and the campaign. By the end of the year, NJEA staff would visit more than 500 schools and talk with countless members about the role they could play to pass these bills.

The movement was real.

Eloy Delgado, president of the Linden Education Association, served on the Steering Committee. He described the campaign as feeling different than any other union-led campaign.

“It felt different because there was more ground-level support than in the past,” said Delgado. “There were more asks of the general membership to get involved. Whether it was picketing outside of a legislative office, having one-on-one meetings with legislators, or simply being engaged in the work of the campaign, members were asked to take ownership of this work in a very real way.”

NJEA members continued to batter legislative offices with constant communications urging them to move the bills. By the end of March, more than 41,000 postcards had been sent to legislative offices. The two Job Justice bills had each earned more than 40 sponsors in the Assembly, and the Ch. 78 relief bill had more than 30 sponsors in the Assembly. As the sponsor list grew, members began to believe the passage of the three bills was possible. As that belief grew stronger, the actions grew more impactful.

“At a time when many—virtually every—Trenton insider thought it was impossible to move these three bills, our members committed to each other, our profession, and this campaign,” said NJEA Vice President Sean M. Spiller. “Through strategic, sustained collective action, the Statehouse began to hear us. This wasn’t about politics, it was about what was right for educators, public education, and the students we serve. As we kept at it, we began to change minds under the gold dome. We made a difference that will be felt for years to come—maybe forever in New Jersey’s public schools.”

Small victories and more hurdles

During the spring of 2019, things heated up as members of the Assembly launched their campaigns for the November election. On May 15, 2020, members in all 21 counties across the state rallied outside of targeted legislative offices.

“This campaign was very well organized, and we stayed focused throughout a long campaign,” said LeShaun Arrington, president of the New Brunswick Education Association and member of the steering committee. “There is power in numbers. It’s not just about the work of the leadership. If we as educators want to see change, it has to be all of us. Our voices speak louder when we speak together. When we use our voice collectively, things work out for us.”

Eight days after the 21 coordinated rallies outside of legislative officers, both of the ESP Job Justice bills passed the Assembly by overwhelming majorities. Those two bills moved on to the Senate, while the Ch. 78 relief bill stalled. It had yet to be heard by any legislative committee. Members were frustrated and began to feel that familiar “this is impossible” feeling that they’d grown so used to over the previous governor’s term.

NJEA and NJREA members display the “We Love New Jersey’s Public Schools” signs that appeared on lawns throughout the state.

That’s when the campaign expanded to include parents and community members. Yard signs bearing the phrase “I Love New Jersey’s Public Schools” were seen on lawns in communities across the state. Supporters of the three bills put the signs on their lawns and magnets on their cars indicating to educators that they stood with them. This fight, which started as a fight for educators, became a fight for the future of public schools.

It would have been easy for NJEA members to say they were tired of working so hard. After all, the campaign had continued to evolve using modern technology such as text messages and social media to put pressure on the Legislature. By May, NJEA members had sent more than 40,000 campaign-related texts, and still nothing would move the bills.

“We were tired but not broken,” said NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Steve Beatty. “Our members work full-time jobs, some of them get up at 4 a.m. to make sure their buses are prepared and ready to pick up children at 6 a.m. And here we were: asking them to make calls, attend rallies, and talk to other members about the passage of bills that seemed destined to fail. We never gave up hope, though. As leaders, we knew the Legislature felt the power of our members in every ZIP code in the state. We were so energized when June 9 rally happened.”

In early June of 2019, NJEA joined forces with the Communications Workers of America to host a rally outside the statehouse. Thousands of members flooded the Capital complex in Trenton, and the course of the campaign was changed forever. Organized exclusively by NJEA members, the rally made headlines and members felt energized.

The campaign shifts, the bills pass

As the summer months came and the campaign began its second year, there was a shift in strategy as the election of the General Assembly grabbed the focus of everyone in Trenton. NJEA members agreed to work with the certain members of the Assembly to win elections. Members demonstrated that their commitment to good policymakers went beyond bills: for NJEA members, it’s about electing the right people who will help New Jersey’s public schools best serve their students.

Shortly after the election, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin introduced a new version of the Ch. 78 Relief bill that reimagined health care for educators in New Jersey.

“It’s simple: these bills became laws because of member power,” said NJEA Executive Director Steve Swetsky. “The united, coordinated actions of members was what moved Trenton’s mindset on these bills. NJEA members, speaking with one voice, convinced the Legislature that these bills were important for public educators, and by extension, important for public education. Educator’s voices are powerful and these new laws should serve as a constant reminder of our ability to use those voices to support polices that support public education, for the good of the children we teach, and the schools we together call home.”

While the pressure on the Legislature continued to mount as a result of the actions of thousands of members, NJEA leaders began to work with New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney on the passage of the bills. On March 9, 2020, at a statehouse press conference, Sweeney and Blistan announced a landmark agreement on a Ch. 78 relief bill. A year and a half after the campaign began, on March 19, all three bills were finally passed through the New Jersey Senate.

As the bills passed, the world was changing more rapidly than anyone could have imagined. The pandemic caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, had forced all in-person organizing to move to the digital realm. Schools were open only remotely, and despite members being physically separate, the activism continued.

Feeling the power of NJEA members

The bills passed the Senate with overwhelming majorities because the members of the New Jersey Senate felt the power of NJEA. In just under two years, more than 12,800 calls had been made to legislative offices by NJEA members and more than 2,000 members attended lobby days. More than 100,000 NJEA members sent emails to legislators, and, not surprisingly, the Steering Committee had expanded to include more than 40 NJEA members guiding the actions of the campaign.

The pandemic forced the campaign to shift to an almost all-digital landscape, and yet, NJEA members stepped up even as they navigated the new world of educating in remote environments. On June 29, 2020, all three bills passed the Assembly. Gov. Murphy signed the Ch. 78 Relief bill July 1, 2020. 

One more hurdle for ESP Job Justice came at the eleventh hour: differences between the versions of the anti-privatization bill in the Senate and Assembly had to be resolved. While the due process bill awaited the governor’s signature, Sen. Sweeney and Speaker Coughlin committed to aligning the language in the anti-privatization bill. As of this writing, the bill awaits only a concurrance vote before it is sent to Gov. Murphy’s desk.

The due process bill, however, was signed by Gov. Murphy on Aug. 15, 2020. 

“Our union is powerful because our members are powerful,” said Blistan. “The passage of these bills demonstrates our members’ strength. When we choose to act, we make a difference. Given the challenges facing our nation and our schools right now, I am filled with confidence because I know when we work together, we can achieve the impossible. I am excited to see what future changes we can bring forth for public education in New Jersey.”

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