There's high stakes poker game being played in Atlantic City that pits union vs. union as Gov. Christie, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto bet on which bill to save the city will be voted on by the state legislature. Sweeney and Prieto have each posted their own versions (more on that below). In the meantime Christie announced Wednesday that he is suing the city for not making payments to the schools.*
|Credit: The Press of Atlantic City|
"So, between now and June 30th the city owes the school district $34 million and there is no question they will not be able to pay it due to the irresponsibility of the city government... The [lawsuit] ... will prevent them from making the families and students collateral damage to their reckless financial gains... They intend to try to make a payroll payment on Friday of $3.2 million. If they do that, they would have no cash... to make the school payment for April and certainly when the next $8.4 million became due in May. We want to stop that. We want a court to stop it before Friday so that they don't do away with this money before it can go to the teachers and the school children of Atlantic City." (emphasis mine)Excuse me while I choke on my coffee. Did Christie just express his concerns for teachers not getting paid and public schools not being funded? Either this is some kind of delayed April Fools joke or the man truly has no shame. Given his history of trashing and bashing our state's education professionals and public schools, and flat-out lying to us, does anyone in their right mind believe Christie is filing this lawsuit to protect the children and teachers? If so, I've got a casino—or 4—to sell you.
|Credit: The Press of Atlantic City|
"The reason the financial crisis exists right now is because the governor has shorted us $33.5 million. Promised us the money, made us put it in the budget and then decided not to make the payment...
"If he wants to take legal action, I guess he would have to ask the attorney general to take legal action against himself and the staff that he's put in charge that tells us when to make payments to the schools."
The state [assigned] a monitor to find best practices and reduce costs [in the schools] and also find additional state aide. This year the state monitor was told to trim $25 million and the state would provide another $25 million. But three months ago, the governor made it clear he's not going to provide the $25 million... The monitor quit... There's a new monitor there... The schools in Atlantic City do not receive the same funding as other schools get. We have 7,500 students... and if we were any other district... we would be getting about $80 million. (emphasis mine)
City Council President Marty Small (from same video):
[Christie is] trying to make it seem like we're a month behind, but actually we're paying when they told us to pay. But to use Atlantic City school children in this battle that we're withholding payments so our children won't be able to go to school is ludicrous. (emphasis mine)
We've been the big boys at the table. We've been ready, willing and able... to talk a compromise that each and every one of us can live with... This move is a desperate attempt to take the money so the government will literally shut down.
Look, I don't claim to know the entire history of Atlantic City's fiscal mess. But I know a rat when I smell one, and this one stinks to high heaven. This is not about Christie wanting to protect public schools, students and teachers; it's about taking over the city and by right, the school district. I can see it now: Atlantic City will become the New Orleans of the north (I can hear the charter cheerleaders rubbing their hands together in glee as I type). Here's how the scenario will no doubt play out if Christie and Sweeney get their way:
- State sues city for money it doesn't have because the state withheld the payment
- State wins suit so city can't make payments to the schools or anyone else
- State takes over the city
- State suspends all collective bargaining agreements—except for NJEA
- Unionized workers—except NJEA—potentially lose jobs, pensions, benefits and rights to grievance
- State holds all the purse strings
- State takes over school district
- State turns over school district to charter operators (who knows what deal NJEA has or will cut on that)
- Faits accompli
... and then heard that Sweeney's "takeover bill supported by Christie specifically exempts the teacher’s union from language allowing the state to unilaterally terminate or modify city union contracts", I was left scratching my head. "Applauds the state"? Exempts teachers unions from legislation that gives the state the power to destroy collective bargaining for other unions?
Realize that if Sweeney's bill is signed into law, the state will have the power to take this action in Newark, Camden, Paterson and any other city they deem in need of
At a time when Republican governors are following the same anti-union playbook, and with the Constitutional Amendment battle looming on the horizon and the teacher's pension fund on life support, why in the world is Wendell Steinhauer positioning NJEA to be at odds with the other state unions when this fight is about all of us?
Of course we want Atlantic City's public schools to be fully funded. Of course we want our members to be paid. Of course we want to preserve the rights of our members to collectively bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions. But at what cost? If NJEA is powerful enough to negotiate an exemption, shouldn't we be fighting to preserve those rights for all unionized workers, many of whom make only about $20,000 a year and send their children to the city's public schools? Shouldn't we be fighting against the wretched abuse of the poor, middle class, minorities and children that Christie has unleashed for the last six years? Aren't we all brothers and sisters in the same fight? Don't we have an obligation to protect the rights that so many who came before us fought valiantly for—for everyone? The rights that allowed an entire generation to raise themselves up to a better way of life? Shouldn't we be raising all boats instead of sinking some ships?
The Civil Rights movement wasn't just for people of color in Alabama. It was for people of color everywhere. And this fight is no different.
Look at what the Chicago Teachers Union has accomplished. Led by President Karen Lewis, they have fought Mayor Rahm Emanuel's privatization and de-funding efforts every step of the way by building community and labor coalitions. Their one-day strike was successful because everyone worked together for increased funding for Chicago's public schools and other public services. Their efforts should be the model for every labor union in every state in this country, including NJEA. This is how we should be fighting back against a man who hates us and everything we stand for. With all the power we supposedly have, we should be leaving Christie in the dust, not making deals with the man who wants to destroy us.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto has posted a bill (A3614) that would protect the collective bargaining rights of all Atlantic City unions at first. If the city doesn't met certain benchmarks within the first two years, then collective bargaining agreements could be amended or terminated—but again, not NJEAs:
"Collective bargaining and worker rights cannot be the first thing on the chopping block,” Prieto said. “The expert committee created under this bill would be given a year to use its sweeping power to cut spending, save money and restore Atlantic City to sound financial condition. If it does not meet specific benchmarks, more draconian steps could rightly be taken, but worker rights must first be valued.”
But Christie has repeatedly said that unless Sweeney’s version of the takeover bill is presented to him, he won’t sign it. He has even gone as far as to say that if the original bill is not posted by Prieto, he will campaign against a voter referendum this fall to expand casino gaming beyond Atlantic City, an idea he has previously supported. (emphasis mine)... and that Senate President Steve Sweeney is leading the charge on.
But at least Prieto recognizes that suspending CBAs should be a last resort.
So, when NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer says he agrees with and supports the state for "correctly acting to enforce the law," it sounds to me like he is siding with Christie to hurt the school district and the city, and violate the state constitution which prohibits Trenton from breaking union contracts, and that is a recipe for disaster.
Experts note that the state constitution says the Legislature shall not pass any bill "impairing the obligation of contracts or depriving a party of any remedy for enforcing a contract which existed when the contract was made."
[Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers] also noted that the constitution also bans lawmakers from passing bills that apply to specific municipalities to prevent them from "interfering" with local governments.
[Sen.] Sweeney... said that's why he did not mention Atlantic City's name in the takeover legislation.
In 2011 then Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver sold out to Christie and signed onto Chapter 78. We now have an assembly speaker who fully supports labor's right to collectively bargain. Why are we not supporting his bill?
Not every NJEA member reading this is going to agree with me and I'm okay with that. But we cannot skirt this issue. I fear that if the union I love alienates itself from the rest of New Jersey's labor organizations in supporting the Christie/Sweeney bill, we will indeed be branded as the 'Bullies of State Street' and we will be betraying our labor brothers and sisters. Now, more than ever, we must stand together, arm in arm, with labor unions across this state. And we must never, ever forget those fateful words:
I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor.
* On April 8th, Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled in favor of the city allowing it to keep the money it had on hand and calling the state's lawsuit "political maneuvering". Another hearing date has been set for April 19th where the full case will be heard.