When Union Power Goes Too Far: The Case of Sasha Latham

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This piece is part of an ongoing series: Is the Teachers Union Too Powerful in New Jersey?

Two years ago, with some trepidation, Sasha Latham (not her real name) headed down the hallway at Lenape High School to her A.P. Literature and Composition class. She’d heard from kids in a different section of the course that their teacher, Joseph Archible, would be leading a discussion on whether “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” should be stricken from the class syllabus because both classics use the “n” word. As the only Black girl in the class, Sasha expected she’d be in for lots of furtive looks from classmates. 

What she didn’t expect was to end up in tears or, months later, to be deposed by Archible’s lawyers during the school board’s attempt to fire him for the “use of racially insensitive language on at least three known occasions.”

If you’re a parent like me, you might think Archible should lose his job and be stripped of the security of teacher tenure. You might also think that New Jersey’s 2012 teacher tenure reform bill, passed with great fanfare by the State Legislature during the Christie administration, would allow Lenape Public Schools District to fire Archible.

But Lenape’s Board of Education couldn’t do that. Why? Because sometimes public sector unions are too strong and, when they are, those without power suffer the consequences. 

Union Power

It’s not too hard to find examples of muscle-bound unions that harm the public good, especially those with little agency. For example, in San Francisco a strike of railroad workers took its greatest toll on mass transit-dependent, low-income residents who objected to the already-high annual wages of $193,407 for a train operator and $195,286 for an electrical foreman. 

In Chicago, police officer Jason Van Dyke, who had been the subject of multiple complaints, shot and killed Laquan McDonald. As the New York Times puts it, “unions can be so effective at defending their members that cops with a pattern of abuse can be left untouched.” 

Closer to home, this past February a Jersey City police chief collected more than half a million dollars in unused sick pay when he retired due to the ability of his union to bypass the state’s $15,000 sick day payout cap. In Lodi, a 48-year-old police officer retired with a check for $342,000 (on top of his monthly pension) from a combination of unused sick and vacation days. According to a report by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that “investigates abuses of power,” the small town had to arrange a “special emergency appropriation” and pay the officer in installments. When town officials and lawmakers tried to walk back the excess, the union held its ground. 

After hearing these stories, you might shudder when you realize our own Gov. Phil Murphy told the Policemen’s Benevolent Association during his 2017 campaign, “I’m going to be here when you need me.”

They Should Pass a Law

But we’re here to look at New Jersey Education Association, NJ’s major teachers union. Back in 2012 during the Christie administration, the State Legislature passed a bill that, in its original form, would enable districts to strip teachers like Archible of their tenure without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Only 20 teachers had been fired the previous decade because the process was so onerous.) 

The new law, called “Teacher Effectiveness and Accountability for the Children of New Jersey” or TEACHNJ, tried to address this by extending the granting of tenure from three years to four, putting timelines on how long tenure hearings could last and caps on how much money could be spent, changing the venue of tenure hearings from administrative law courts to a panel of arbiters, tying teacher tenure to classroom effectiveness as measured in part by student academic growth, and allowing districts to keep younger teachers when lay-offs were necessary, instead of relying solely on seniority.

But without the sign-off from teachers union lobbyists, legislators were too fearful to vote “yes,” even when multiple advocates testified to the importance of each item. The last one—seniority-based layoffs—was a deal-breaker to the union, and the measure was removed from the bill right before the vote. 

At one of the last hearings, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, then Newark Mayor, scolded legislators, “It seems to me monumentally absurd to have a bill that is debated and ultimately agreed upon and then somehow forgives and forgets all the teachers who are there and only applies to new teachers in the profession.”

The bill did pass and included some important reforms. But over the last nine years those have been undermined. For example, TEACHNJ tied 30% of the teacher’s rating to student growth but Christie agreed to lower that to 15% in order to phase in this radical way of gauging teacher effectiveness by integrating student outcomes. 

Shortly after Murphy took office, the Department of Education lowered the impact of student growth to 5%, rendering the reform meaningless. NJEA leaders celebrated in a statement:

Today’s announcement is another step by Gov. Murphy toward keeping a campaign promise to rid New Jersey’s public schools of the scourge of high-stakes testing…By cutting the weight given to the scores to near the bare minimum, the Department of Education and the Murphy administration have shown their respect.

Not an Outlier

Let’s get back to Sasha Latham and her teacher, because his use of the “n” word wasn’t his only transgression. At the hearing, one of Sasha’s female classmates testified that, “Mr. Achible was somewhat creepy and weird to me.” He “gave me high grades on essays that were not deserving” and “invited me to the Dodge Poetry Trip without me volunteering.” One day at lunch he handed her a book where, she said, he had “underlined some passage that seemed weird, such as a couple of lines that mentioned a teenage girl with long, dark hair (which matches my description) going to a motel with the main character to have a relationship.” In the margin of the book by the line that says the girl “was 18, lost and confused,” Archible had scribbled, “do you ever feel like that?”

And Lenape High School Principal Tony Cattani testified that, while attending a sports banquet, several parents showed him a video (admitted into evidence) that showed Archible in front of a white board where he had written at the top “N_GGER” and “N__GA.” In the video, Archible says, “It’s basically saying look, there are black people, and then there are n___ers.” 

Was this enough evidence for the Lenape School Board to dismiss Archible? No, the arbiter ruled in favor of Sasha’s teacher, writing that he had committed “relatively minor” offenses. His only penalty was a 60-day suspension that he’d already served. The school board was instructed to “promptly offer” the teacher “reinstatement to his former position,” change the tenure charges “to a written warning,” and make him “whole for lost wages, benefits, and seniority.” 

(It’s worth noting here that one of the negotiated items in the NJ teacher tenure reform bill is that, in choosing the 25-member panel of arbiters, the state school boards association picks 9 and unions choose 16. Also, Lenape Superintendent Carol Birnbohm told the media that the arbiter’s ruling was “frankly irresponsible” and “woefully inadequate to address Archible’s conduct and that he should not be permitted to return to the classroom.” She added, “Regardless of the flawed conclusion in this case, we will continue our efforts to protect and support our school community.”)

Sasha’s experience isn’t an outlier.

In 2016 the Bound Brook School Board tried to strip a teacher of tenure because “he stored pictures of nude women on his district-issued iPad,” made “inappropriate sexual comments” towards several female staff members, purchased flowers and had students deliver them to female staff members, and made female staff members uncomfortable.”

The arbiter dismissed the charges. 

In 2019 The Penns Grove-Carneys Point Regional School District school board voted in April to bring tenure charges against a seventh-grade teacher for saying to his students, “something to the effect of ‘I’m done with these n******,” or ‘I’m not trying to deal with these n******.”

The arbiter dismissed the charges. From the Star-Ledger: “In a 16-page ruling, arbitrator Peter Adomeit said while he believes Bassetti used the n-word in his seventh-grade classroom in February, firing him is not warranted because he was ‘muttering to himself’ and never intended to be heard by students.”

In February the Wyckoff School Board filed tenure charges against a middle school teacher with a documented history of abuse, alleging he sexually assaulted a seventh-grade student and inappropriately touched two others. 

The arbiter ruled last month that the teacher suffered from a “failure to maintain appropriate boundaries” but “said he wasn’t convinced that the behavior “constituted sexual harassment or was sexual in nature.” The teacher was ordered reinstated after a six-month suspension.

When Is a Union Too Strong?

When are labor protections too strong? Do protections like tenure get in the way of improving schools? Do they interfere with efforts to elevate the teaching profession and effectively serve historically marginalized students? Or do they serve as a necessary safeguard from overzealous administrators and school boards? How does one find the right balance between fairness to educators and fairness to the greater school community? 

Is it even possible to generalize across the entire state? In Lakewood, 131 teachers caught the coronavirus because their union wasn’t strong enough to withstand school board pressure to reopen classrooms. Meanwhile, in Montclair the union has successfully kept schools closed, despite parent and administrative pleas to show up.

After reading this exhaustive list, you might think these questions are asked with the answer already implied. That’s not true (and soon we’ll examine the weaknesses of NJ’s teacher union). It’s complicated. I believe all effective New Jersey teachers deserve three things: 1) due process and job protections; 2) higher salaries; and 3) enormous public regard. That is, after all, what my own parents fought for. While the vast majority have the first (with room to spare!) they lack the second and third but when teachers like Archible get a slap on the wrist solely due to union sway, the teaching profession is demeaned and dishonored.

In other words, sometimes a powerful union is its own worst enemy. Everyone loses—except the lawyers. (In 2018, the most recent tax filing I could find, NJ’s teachers union paid Archible’s attorneys—whom NJEA relies on in many tenure cases—almost $2 million.) When public sector unions are too strong, they cross the line that divides worthy labor protection from corruptive influence. 

Sasha could tell you that.


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