Rank-and-File Movement Challenges Newark Teachers' Union Establishment
Eight months after negotiating “performance bonuses” funded by a Facebook fortune, Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso was re-elected Tuesday by a margin of nine votes. A challenger slate that’s drawn inspiration from the Chicago Teachers Union captured seventeen of the twenty-nine seats on the NTU’s executive board, while barely falling short in its bid to oust Del Grosso. The new and old union officers will be sworn in together this afternoon, setting the stage for further conflict over the union’s orientation towards a nationally ascendant education reform agenda.
“There was no overwhelming mandate for either slate,” Del Grosso told The Nation Thursday. He charged that his opponents “gave out a lot of bad erroneous information to the members” during the campaign, and said that having captured a majority of the board, “they’ll learn about unionism from the inside. So sometimes it’s nice to have people who like throwing rocks at people that are on the inside, actually be inside” themselves. Teacher Branden Rippey, a leader of the competing NEW Caucus who was Del Grosso’s opponent in Tuesday’s election, countered, “I think he and other union leaders like him feed right into the corporate reform agenda, if they have not collaborated with it.”
As I reported for In These Times in October, the Newark contract deal was celebrated by Republican Governor Chris Christie and by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who called the deal “a system of the future” and an example “that collective bargaining really works.” In contrast, Rippey told The Nation that the deal “basically is a complete capitulation to the corporate agenda.”
Under the agreement, management agreed to have a portion of teachers’ evaluations be based on “peer review” by other teachers; the union agreed to have a portion of teachers’ compensation come in the form of bonuses distributed based on their evaluations. The bonuses will be paid for from a $100 million fund donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in 2010, a high-profile example of the influence a wealthy philanthropist can wield with donations to a cash-strapped school system.
Del Grosso and Weingarten have both rejected the term “merit pay” to describe the new system, noting that the bonuses will compose only part of teachers’ compensation and will be based only in part on test scores. Del Grosso called the new system “performance pay”; Weingarten last fall called it “a full compensation system where the work you do and the compensation you have are tied in together.” While “in the beginning some people see it as not a good thing,” Del Grosso told The Nation, he considers winning peer review “one of the hallmarks” of his eighteen years at the union’s helm. “It’s the thing that’s going to allow teachers to take control of their profession,” he said, “and become free professionals like doctors and lawyers and engineers.”
Under a 2012 law signed by Christie and supported by NTU, Newark schools will be required to include testing in evaluations. NEW Caucus’s Rippey described a requirement that student test scores make up 35 percent of evaluations next year as “brutal,” and “like suicide for teachers in an urban district with 32 percent child poverty.” Del Grosso told The Nation that he was hopeful that the state education board would scale back the role of testing in evaluations. He said last fall that he agreed to support the law—which also makes it easier to fire teachers who receive poor evaluations—on the condition that it offer the option for union contracts to implement peer review.
NEW Caucus members have noted that the Newark schools superintendent retains ultimate authority over evaluation decisions; they warned last fall that the new system was merit pay by another name, and would divide workers and undermine experience-based or across-the-board raises in the future. The NEW Caucus mounted an unsuccessful effort in October to convince a majority of their co-workers to vote down the proposed deal; it passed with 62 percent support. (NEW stands for Newark Education Workers; the word “workers” is an intentional contrast to national unions’ emphasis on teachers as “professionals.”)
Rippey slammed “turnaround” and “renew” schools provisions in the October deal, which allow the superintendant to designate a set number of schools for mass layoffs; Del Grosso countered that those provisions would “prevent charter schools.” Rippey also charged that the deal shortchanged teachers on annual “step increase” raises they could have won during the two years they were working without a contract. Del Grosso countered that the critics have “an erroneous view of how contracts are negotiated in New Jersey…you begin bargaining from a standpoint of zero.” He added that Republicans “tell me that Newark raped the state and the taxpayers because we got too much money.”
Tuesday’s NTU election follows April’s leadership election in the AFT’s largest local, New York’s United Federation of Teachers. In both cases, incumbents survived challenges from caucuses demanding more aggressive opposition to the mainstream “education reform” agenda backed by billionaires like Zuckerberg. Both Newark’s NEW Caucus and New York’s MORE Caucus have taken inspiration from the Congress of Rank and File Educators, a caucus that seized control of the Chicago Teachers Union in a 2010 election and then mounted last summer’s week-long strike.
Like Chicago’s CORE Caucus, Rippey said NEW plans to use its foothold on the executive board to push for greater democracy in the union, to re-engage members and to build deeper ties to the broader community in Newark. “We’re not trying to just be a bread-and-butter union,” said Rippey. “We’re trying to make society better for everyone.” Rippey said that he sees “little bubbles” of such teacher unionism “starting to bubble up in different parts of the country.” But “I think we’re only about 5 percent of the way to building a movement.”
Asked about the NEW Caucus’s invocations of the Chicago strike, Del Grosso said, “The people in the Caucus have the right to apply for jobs there. Strikes are legal in Chicago. They’re not legal in New Jersey.”
Asked in March whether she hoped to see NEW and MORE oust incumbents in Newark and New York, CORE activist and current Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis stopped short of offering an endorsement: “I think every local has to decide what works for them…. If you’re teaching, you know that every kid isn’t at the same place, you know, so you have to differentiate your instruction. So some people are more ready to be accepting of a different way of looking at ‘union.’ ”