Holding up his forefinger and thumb during the public comment period of the Jersey City Board of Education meeting earlier this month, Education Association President Ron Greco said the teacher’s union and the school district “are this close” to a contract settlement.
“All you have to do is give us the offers so we can consider them,” Greco said. He said school board negotiators had promised to present the union with several proposals.
Backing him up, hundreds of teachers bearing signs made a show of force. Some blew on whistles, others blew on horns, and still another teacher played a recording of a popular rock song, “We’re not going to take it anymore.”
But Greco says the proposals he asked for have yet to materialize, and several media sources have reported that union members have voted to authorize a strike – the first since 1998 – if the matter is not resolved.
A delegation from the Board of Education has met regularly with union officials to work out an agreement, but according to Greco the board apparently has yet to release an offer that the members are willing to accept.
Health cost is the biggest issue
The biggest stumbling block apparently has been over health care costs, which some of the teachers say amounts to a significant loss of pay if they are forced to give in.
In both a statement issued this week and remarks made to the board directly last month, Greco urged the board to present an offer the union can vote on.
“We want nothing more than to get back to work under a contract that respects the expertise of our members and the need for affordable health care," he said in the statement.
The current $680 million school budget does not provide for teacher salary increases, according to a source privy to the budget process.
“All you have to do is give us the offers so we can consider them.” – Ron Greco
But more central to the conflict was an agreement with former Gov. Christopher Christie requiring school employees to pay a portion of their health insurance premiums in exchange for state payments into teachers’ pensions.
This agreement expired in late 2017, and since December, teachers have increased protests to get the district to take back more of the burden of healthcare costs.
One insider said the union demands could cost the district as much as an additional $20 million.
The state law pushed through by Christie in 2011 requires teachers to contribute to their health benefits. Christie agreed to fund the pension system, which has been at issue for decades.
But since 2011, premiums for teachers as well as other institutions have risen sharply. Currently teachers in Jersey City pay about $20 million in health premiums out of a total for the district employees of about $100 million.
The 2011 state law covers all public workers and included a yearly increase in the percentage school employees had to pay over a four-year period.
With the time period expired, the union is asking the district to take back more of the cost.
Greco and other teachers at the board meeting in February claimed that these costs were devouring larger portions of teachers’ salaries.
The union and school officials have been in negotiations for about six months, but have yet to resolve this critical issue.
“It is very possible we might see a strike,” said one school official privy to the negotiations.
Greco and Fulop clash
The battle has become political, too. Teacher protests around the city have led to traffic snarls. In one such instance, Jersey City police ticketed cars that slowed down to honk their horns in support of the protestors.
Greco blasted Mayor Steven Fulop, claiming that mayor’s progressive values “run only skin deep.”
Fulop responded in a tweet saying “name calling (as it is happening now) helps nobody.”
Fulop, in the last two board of education election cycles, tended to support union-backed candidates, although prior to that he supported anti-union reformers.
Because of changes in state regulations, board members who have received teacher union endorsements over the last election cycle are prohibited from taking part in the negotiations.
Fulop said the board and union should call an impasse if they can’t come up with an acceptable solution and have an independent third party decide.
“Striking only hurts teachers/students,” Fulop tweeted.
School district officials hope they can resolve the situation shortly. They are expected to unveil a new health care plan that will help relieve the economic issue.
Currently, school employees can choose between a number of insurance options, and nearly 75 percent of them have chosen the most expensive option available.
The board itself is divided on how to handle the situation. Some members have asked for the board to provide more information about its strategies for dealing with the negotiations.
Board President Sudhan Thomas has prohibited board members from reporting about the negotiations in public.
The next regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting in March 15 at 6 p.m. in School No. 11.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.