Will Jersey City teachers be next to strike?

Karl Schwartz explains why teachers in the country's third most expensive city in the country may be moving toward their first strike in 20 years.

Teachers in Jersey City rally against threats of disciplinary actionTeachers in Jersey City rally against threats of disciplinary action

IN THE wake of the victorious teachers' strike in West Virginia, many people are wondering if that historic display of solidarity and militancy will inspire strikes by educators in other parts of the country.

Teachers are actively discussing plans to strike in Oklahoma, where nearly 100 districts across the state operate on a four-day week, and teachers rely on housing vouchers and food banks to supplement their barebones salaries. The s-word has also surfaced in Arizona, another state that ranks near the bottom nationally in teacher pay.

Teachers' salaries are better in the Northeast, but one of New Jersey's largest cities recently moved closer to a strike than it has in almost 20 years. Like in West Virginia, the issue galvanizing teacher anger is health care.

On February 26, the Jersey City Education Association (JCEA) voted to authorize a strike in the 29,000-student district as a last resort if negotiations don't produce an agreement the union accepts.

The teachers' main demand is relief from Chapter 78, a 2011 law signed by former Gov. Chris Christie.

Before 2011, teachers paid almost nothing in health care premiums. Today, teachers in the highest salary bracket pay as much as 35 percent of their premiums, and those whose families rely on their health care plans pay far more than those without dependents.

As the website for the statewide New Jersey Education Association explains: "When an employee's salary increases, the contribution may jump to another level of premium-sharing, resulting in the pay raise being reduced, negated or, even worse, decreased."

As a result, some teachers are making less money now than they did 10 years ago. Rather than rewarding veteran teachers' experience with raises, Chapter 78 punishes them, leading many to ask why young teachers would want to work in Jersey City if they know they could be making less money as they advance in their careers.

With a median annual salary of $66,000, Jersey City teachers may appear to be well-paid compared to their peers in West Virginia and Oklahoma, but as a report by the Economic Policy Institute put it, "New Jersey public school teachers are underpaid, not overpaid." As the report explained:

When we control for education, experience, gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship, marital status and weeks worked per year, the weekly wage earnings of full-time New Jersey public school teachers are significantly lower than those of comparable full-time employees...All metrics yield one unmistakable conclusion: New Jersey public school teachers are undercompensated--they face wage and compensation penalties for being teachers.

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LYING DIRECTLY across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Jersey City is often referred to as New York's "sixth borough." It is one of the most densely populated and racially diverse cities in the country. Although many of the city's working class neighborhoods have gentrified rapidly over the past decade, public school students come from mostly low-income, minority families.

At $3,340 a month, Jersey City has the third-highest average rents in the country, behind only San Francisco and New York. "The only reason I can afford to live here is because of my wife," one young teacher said in an interview. "If this is the pay I have to look forward to in 10 years, why would I want to stay here?"

At a school board hearing attended by hundreds of teachers last December, Kristen Zadroga-Hart said:

No teacher comes in to the profession thinking they're going to get rich. We come in to make a difference in our community and our children's lives. That being said, we need to have a livable wage. We can't afford to live in Jersey City anymore.

Attacks on public-sector workers were a central feature of the Republican Christie's eight-year reign of terror. The governor worked tirelessly to build resentment against the state's teachers for being overpaid, and to create a new common sense that the state is going broke and could no longer afford to be so generous.

These talking points worked well to turn popular opinion against public-sector unions, while allowing Republicans and many Democrats to avoid supporting a millionaire's tax that would help fund many of benefits being taken away from teachers.

Republicans in New Jersey have never been secretive about their disdain for unions, but Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, the second most powerful Democrat in in a state with the third most millionaires per capita, has also opposed raising taxes on the rich. Coughlin claims the state's top priority "should be to reduce spending" before attempting to raise new revenues.

Phil Murphy, New Jersey's new "proudly progressive" governor (and former Goldman Sachs executive), champions himself as a friend of labor. But he picked one of the architects of Chapter 78, Sheila Oliver, to be his lieutenant governor.

Labor activists haven't forgotten Oliver's comment at the time of the bill's passage to a statehouse filled with union members: "I know that everyone in this room supports collective bargaining, but we must face the stark economic reality." Oliver remained a staunch defender of the bill until recently.

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WITH LITTLE support from elected officials--including Jersey City's young and ambitious Mayor Steven Fulop, who tweeted that "striking only hurts teachers/students"-- teachers have been engaging in smaller protests outside of schools and school board meetings since December.

"Our members will not and cannot settle a contract that offers zero relief on their health benefits," declared JCEA president Ron Greco in December. Although Greco has expressed optimism several times during negotiations, the school board has yet to offer any type of Chapter 78 relief.

When I was a teacher in Jersey City a few years ago, we were working with an expired contract, and teacher morale was low, but I don't remember ever hearing the word "strike." The fact that West Virginia teachers were able to close schools in all 55 counties of a rural state has put the idea of a Jersey City teachers' strike back into the realm of possibility for the first time since 1998.

It's also stirring more talk about the need for a Medicare for All system. "Health care being tied to employment is problematic," a veteran teacher told me. "It has become a huge issue for schools. It sure shows how we need universal health care."

Despite the increased talk of striking from teachers all across the country, challenges in Jersey City remain.

All of the teachers I spoke to in the district seemed uncertain about whether a strike is actually on the horizon. A younger teacher told me that he isn't sure if many of the newer teachers are as militant, since they haven't yet been hit as hard by the high premium contributions.

A teacher of 15 years explained how her entire career has been an uphill battle against the school board, the administration and the state. Every new contract, she said, has been a draining fight for the pay and benefits that teachers deserve--and the stress of constantly fighting these battles has taken its toll on teachers who have built careers in the district.

But in the wake of West Virginia, teachers are talking around the country, and ideas are changing fast.

In a long Facebook post shared more than 13,000 times, Oklahoma teacher Beth Wallis expressed the pent-up anger and desire for collective action that's bursting out of educators after many years of injustices and indignities:

After school, our district held a meeting on potential action. Emotions ran high. Teachers are torn between doing what needs to be done for the schools and kids, and in turn putting a major burden on the community in the process. How will those kids eat? What about parents who work all day? Our first instinct as teachers is to do anything to protect the kids. But it's gotten to the point now, we can no longer keep filing it all away, compartmentalizing it, and hoping it'll all work out in the end. Because every year, we do, and every year, our state legislature absolutely and totally fails all of us. And every year, we file it all away, compartmentalize it, and we're told that somehow it'll all work out.

Full stop.

Let me tell y'all right now, *we have waited, and waited, and waited*, and this is never going to work itself out.

Jersey City teachers know exactly what Beth Wallis is talking about. After years of enduring attacks on their living standards and their dignity, they might be about to take action into their own hands and challenge New Jersey's long war on teachers.