In this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai looks at NJEA’s anachronistic hard line against changes to pay and benefits structures, and how Gov. Christie has successfully used the union leaders’ recalcitrance to become on of the “most intriguing political figures in America.”
“He is the governor!” [NJEA President Barbara] Keshishian said, her voice rising. “People listen to him! You know, he could be in a crowd of people, and they’re going to interview the governor! And people, I guess, believe that what the governor says is the truth.” Keshishian taught high-school math for 29 years, but her grasp on civics sounded a bit shaky. It doesn’t seem especially likely that Christie is breaking through because he is a politician and therefore people take to heart his every word.
What the union’s leadership seems not to have considered is that public sentiment around budgets and public employees has shifted in a fundamental way. For decades, as Keshishian and Giordano were rising up through the union, it probably made sense to adopt a strategy of “no surrender,” to dig in and outlast the occasional politician who might dare to threaten the union’s hard-earned gains. But over the last 10 years or so, most American workers have come to expect less by way of benefits and security from their employers. And with political consensus building toward some kind of public-school reform, teachers’ unions in particular have lost credibility with the public. Forty-six percent of voters in a poll conducted by Stanford and the Associated Press last September said teachers’ unions deserved either “a great deal” or “a lot” of blame for the problems of public schools.