|From struggles to protect pensions and health insurance to local contracts with actual increases in take-home pay for the first time in many years, AFT New Jersey and our locals won many victories this year. I hope 2016 has been good for you and your family and wanted to reach out to you to recognize the efforts and solidarity it took to win real gains for members.
As school and work takes a pause for most of us for the winter holidays, let’s celebrate with a quick look back at 2016 and warm up to run into 2017 without breaking stride.
Progress on several fronts
Those of us with defined benefit pensions (such as PERS and TPAF, rather than 401k style defined contribution plan ABP), saw measures to protect the integrity of the system and resist the push to phase out pensions.
In conjunction with other public sector unions, NJ AFL-CIO and advocacy group Hedge Clippers, we put pressure on the State Investment Council who agreed to limit investment in expensive hedge funds. This month Governor Christie signed legislation mandating quarterly (rather than annual) payments into the fund. Much work remains as a constitutional amendment to guarantee full funding failed to make the ballot so the Statehouse still has to allocate the funding needed to ensure the fund’s solvency.
The biggest hit to those on state health insurance since 2011 has been increases in member share of premiums. Legislation driving those costs sunset last year and three AFT New Jersey locals ran successful member-driven campaigns to win contracts with the first decreases in members’ health insurance share in five years.
With a year left in Governor Chris Christie’s term, management pushed through changes to state PERS retiree health insurance administration. The Horizon Medicare Advantage Plan administrators promise no changes in benefits, but AFT New Jersey and NJ AFL-CIO labor appointees are watching closely to protect quality retirement health care for members who have put in the time and effort to earn it.
With a surge in activism after the election of Donald Trump for President, Rutgers faculty noted the university has implemented measures, supported by national AFT, that offer sanctuary to undocumented students. “We need ‘sanctuary’ in order to keep Rutgers as we love it and as it currently is: a place open to all who wish to challenge themselves amid new ideas in community with students of color, Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ students, women and men. After 250 years, ‘sanctuary’ is who we are,” said Deepa Kumar, Vice President of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the faculty union.
Another bright spot for higher education is an increase in funding for the Educational Opportunity Fund, a vital program that helps first-generation, low-income and minority students access and succeed in our colleges and university. AFT New Jersey advocated for increased funding and the students’ voices were heard.
From Early Childhood to Higher Education
AFT New Jersey is comprised of strong Higher Education and Pre-Kindergarten to 12 divisions.
On July 1, Garfield High School English Teacher Rob Barbier assumed leadership of the Pre-Kindergarten to 12 division and focused efforts on organizing high-quality, peer-led professional development for teachers. The next professional development day is scheduled for Feb. 25 and promises a full day of vital lessons to help teachers improve classroom instruction.
On Dec. 19, AFT New Jersey’s request to be an “intervener” in a lawsuit challenging seniority provisions in the event of layoffs in Newark was granted. This suit, from a New York group, targets long-standing provisions that protect veteran teachers who might be targeted for political or economic reasons and would have statewide implications. “Our schools are already stretched thin by years of underfunding and political games from Trenton,” said John M. Abeigon, President of the Newark Teachers Union. “Adding instability by removing experienced teachers will only hurt our students.”
The union’s Higher Education division represents the majority of the state’s public college and university faculty and staff. The division has been active in Trenton—advocating and lobbying for legislation to maintain affordable, quality higher education. “The biggest driver for this increase in college costs is the reduction in state aid which has shifted the cost of higher education to students and their families through ever higher tuition and fees,” said Susanna Tardi, the Executive Vice-President for Higher Education at the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey. “Families can simply no longer afford to set aside enough money to pay for their child’s higher education, a fact that has negative consequences for everyone in the state.”
College Council President Tim Haresign sat on the college affordability task force which developed many recommendations to improve the state’s higher education system. However, Haresign argues that one recommendation in support of “3+1” programs is misguided because those programs dilute quality of instruction, dismantle carefully arranged curriculums and academic programs, and decrease transfer options. “We have to weigh cost savings vs. quality of education,” Haresign said.
The Promise and Challenge of 2017
Huge numbers of AFT New Jersey members (especially those who bargain directly with the state) remain out of contract so 2017 will be a critical year. AFT New Jersey will advocate for fair contracts and work to elect state leadership who will bargain fairly in the future as the Governor and all state legislative seats are on the ballot in November.
Organizing is on the agenda for the new year as Princeton University graduate students elected to organize with AFT New Jersey. Growing our ranks is critical for the labor movement as a whole and need to support this important effort.
Please join your local’s Committee on Political Education (COPE) to help make a difference at the local, state and national levels. Our members’ political involvement plays a direct role in decisions that impact our jobs, schools and communities. Most actions are simply (call, email or visit a legislator, talk to other union members), but if you want to run for office as a labor candidate, New Jersey has one the best labor programs in the country and many AFT members and retirees like Liz Gray of North Bergen are among the education and labor activists who have won local office.
While I was honored to be named “Labor Person of the Year” by the NJ AFL-CIO in June, the recognition came because of all the work of members and leaders throughout our network.
As a classroom teacher for more than 30 years, I’m proud that our members call for transparency from charter schools, lead ‘walk-ins’ to schools for public education, call for clean (lead-free) water in schools in Newark and elsewhere, protest when management does not bargain contracts and give genuine, constructive feedback on national and state programs to make the Every Student Succeeds Act work for New Jersey students.
Having completed undergrad and graduate education programs at Kean University I share the commitment to making New Jersey higher education work.
Our higher education leadership seeks to improve the system statewide by educating legislators about research-based solutions in Trenton, our locals support campus activism for reductions in college tuition, question attempts to gloss over problematic leadership at Kean University, and do the traditional union work of opposing layoffs.
When we fight, we achieve wins for all working people and the change in overtime regulations is one such effort AFT New Jersey leaders took on over the past few years Holding on to these victories turns into more of an effort in 2017. Will President Trump’s administration allow rules that would benefit workers who are making less than $46,000, but exempt from overtime pay, to remain in effect?
If you are not a signed member of your local union, you should join. Whatever the future holds for us as public workers, as educators and unionists, it’s important that we approach it together. The year ahead promises many new challenges and opportunities so let’s work together to make New Jersey the best it can be.
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