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The NJEA's New Handbook: How To Lose Friends and Alienate People

The AFT and NEA might want to start rethinking their "we're special and should be protected from budget cuts because we're there for the kids" strategy. Kevin Manahan, of the Newark Star-Ledger editorial board, wrote a column last week suggesting that, at least in New Jersey, the union shtick has worn thin. His beat down of the New Jersey Education Association may serve as a useful cautionary flag for teachers unions across the land. (Just check out the raft of reader comments Manahan has attracted; a quick scan seems to suggest they're running strongly anti-union).

I'm not in the habit of telling anyone how to angle for a raise, but the unions might want to think about the risks of misplaying their hand and whether that will cost them crucial goodwill as states wrestle with tough budget choices in 2011 and beyond.

So what did Manahan have to say? He wrote: "In an astonishing fall from grace that has taken only months, [New Jersey's] teachers have gone from respected and beloved members of the community to some of the most reviled. In a blink, they have trashed years of good will."

He continued:

"At Saturday's rally in Trenton, teachers wondered when the Earth started spinning in the other direction.

"It's like we woke up one morning and the world had changed," said Linda Mirabelli, a music teacher in Livingston. "We were liked and respected, and now, overnight, people have turned against us."

How did it happen? That's easy: One bad decision, one stupid miscalculation: An overwhelming majority of teachers refused to accept a pay freeze. They could have won taxpayers' eternal gratitude, but instead demanded their negotiated raises and fought against contributing a dime toward budget-breaking health insurance benefits. Teachers could have pitched in, but they dug in.

They thumbed their noses at taxpayers, who have lost their jobs, had their pay cut, gone bankrupt and fallen into foreclosure. As taxpayers made less, teachers demanded more. You do that, you become a villain. Fast. It doesn't matter how many stars Junior gets on his book report.

Teachers listened to their overpaid brain trust, the architects of this disastrous public relations strategy. Together, NJEA president Barbara Keshishian, executive director Vincent Giordano and spokesman Steve Wollmer earn more than a million dollars. Keshishian, who has been outmaneuvered by the governor at every turn, earns $256,450 annually. Giordano, with salary and deferred compensation, earned $550,203 in 2009, and Wollmer makes $300,000."

Finally, Manahan concluded:

"And now the NJEA is now running TV commercials, attacking Christie (again), this time using cops and firemen for cover, hoping the public still likes those guys. The firefighters union, realizing the teachers union is now toxic, says it never would have approved the commercial, but the NJEA never asked.

NJEA leadership should have seen the backlash coming. Tenure, raises, pensions, health care benefits and an aversion toward merit pay have irked taxpayers for years. The recession ignited that anger, and no last-gasp advertising blitz will change the perception of insensitive teachers who told taxpayers to eat chalk.

So, the question is: Was it worth it?

The average public school teacher makes $63,000, and the average raise this year was roughly 4 percent, so teachers traded $2,520 for these scars, which never will heal. And because Christie and taxpayers asked only for a one-year pay freeze, it's money teachers could have recovered next year.

Imagine how differently teachers would be perceived today if they had agreed to a pay freeze and willingly offered a few bucks toward their health policies. They'd be heroes."

As one wit observed, "If people think you are rude and obnoxious in New Jersey, you know you have a problem." Dennis van Roekel, you might want to get hold of that new speechwriter I'd suggested.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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