When Chris Christie introduced his pension reform proposals yesterday, the reaction of the leadership of NJEA was fast and fierce. Within moments an email blast erupted into cyberspace, urgently instructing “parents and all citizens of New Jersey to not let the politicians use the people we all rely upon to educate our students as the scapegoats for their own irresponsibility.”
Well, one can understand NJEA’s ire. The proposals, which seem likely to pass through the Senate and the Assembly (the Star-Ledger is reporting that each has more than enough votes) include
1) Requiring governmental workers and retirees (including school teachers) to contribute at least 1.5% of their annual salaries to their own health care costs.
2) Banning governmental part-time workers from participating in the state pension system and rolling back a 2001 pension increase of 9%.
3) Capping sick-leave payouts at $15,000 per employee.
4) Calculating pensions based on the last 5 highest years of salaries instead of the last three years.
5) Constitutionally requiring the state to fully fund its pension obligations every year.
Unreasonable? While the NJEA’s executives may answer “yes,” it probably makes perfect sense to the average New Jerseyan. Most people contribute far more than 1.5% to their health care and who could argue with a financially responsible state government prudently disinfecting its bloodied bond rating? While the NJEA execs and NJ government have had a special understanding for many years, recently that kinship has devolved into a rupture between the average Jersey Joe and a union that, well, is supposed to represent the average Jersey Joe. A large part of this dynamic is directly linked to a growing sense among the public that the leaders at NJEA project a sense of entitlement ill-suited for these stripped-down times.
Even the genteel Daily Record has this to say about the tendency of the NJEA leadership to overreach, specifically in regard to Bergenfield Public School District where the local union chapter is demanding an annual 4.5% raise, which is about average for recent settlements:
[T]axpayers fed up with rapidly escalating property taxes are by and large commenting that they’ve had enough. We understand. In fact in this space over the last half dozen years or so, we’ve cautioned members of the New Jersey Education Association, the parent organization of the various teachers’ unions, that they are in danger of losing their good name…What they don’t understand is that once public opinion turns, overcoming the inertia to get back in the public’s good graces takes a herculean effort. In their case, asking for 4.5-percent increase when roughly one in five working-age Americans are either unemployed and underemployed comes across as not just greedy but out of touch. Not only that but when these folks and others just barely getting by figure out that teacher contracts are generally structured by steps, many will be outraged…When fortune’s wheel turns, it’s hard to get back on top.
Well, you can’t really blame the NJEA. Their heads must be reeling. Just three years ago, in February 2007 NJEA President Joyce Powell (now promoted to the NEA Executive Committee) and NJEA Vice President Barbara Keshishian (now promoted to NJEA President) assured “NJEA Leaders” that newspaper reports claiming that NJEA had reached an agreement with the State on stalling key changes to members’ pensions and benefits were “accurate.” They continue in this missive,
You will recall that last December bills were introduced that would have made major changes to the pension and health benefits of current and future retirees. Gov. Corzine asked the Legislature to withdraw them because he believed they should be negotiated at the bargaining table.
Three years can be a lifetime in politics. With the State’s announcement yesterday, Gov. Christie manages to gracefully evade the contention that the state is interfering with contractual bargaining agreements by fading in the 1.5% employee contribution as contracts expire. Sure, it’s a ham-handed swipe at bargaining table balletics, but the mass of Garden Staters seem ready for a change in their dance card. They’re rolling their eyes at comments, also from today’s Star-Ledger piece, from Bill Lipkin, President of the New Jersey State Federation of Teachers, typically regarded as the less militant union. Insists Lipkin, teacher benefits packages – sans contributions – are fair: “It’s not really a perk, it’s part of their income — part of when they decided, ‘I’m going to become a teacher, I’m going to make $35,000 a year.” But here’s the problem with that argument: people know that teachers make more than $35,000 per year, and it’s an easy fact-check. (Here’s a data base from NJEA titled “$40K Minimum Salary.)
We’re smart here in Jersey. The leadership of NJEA should know this by now; the teachers certainly do. Here’s some suggestions to regain that bally-hooed position on the top of fortune’s wheel: smile nicely and suck up the concessions. Local school boards will be more likely to continue annual increases in the 4-5% range if they know their teachers are making meaningful contributions to healthcare benefits and you’ll come out ahead, both in regards to finances and reputation.