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By Jaclyn Diaz
Thousands of Jersey City, N.J., teachers headed back to class March 19, after the union representing the educators and the city Board of Education reached a tentative deal the night before.
The deal ended a strike involving approximately 3,000 teachers that began March 16 after negotiations stalled. The educators sought lower health-care costs and had been without a contract since September, according to the New Jersey Education Association.
Health care continues to be a sticking point in union negotiations lately, especially with public school teachers. Earlier this month, public school teachers in West Virginia ended a nine-day strike over pay and health-care costs.
The New Jersey strike is just the latest action by public school teachers following the West Virginia work stoppage to improve school funding and pay. Educators in Oklahoma and Arizona have threatened similar actions if improvements on those issues aren’t made in their states.
The West Virginia strike’s influence seems apparent. It reminded workers, especially public sector workers, “who have been living on the whims of state legislatures,” of the power they have to improve wages and working conditions, Celine McNicholas with the Economic Policy Institute said. McNicholas is the director of labor law and policy at EPI, a progressive think tank.
But the influence of West Virginia could be overblown, especially in the case of the New Jersey action, Dan DiSalvo, senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, said.
A representative for the Jersey City Education Association couldn’t be reached for comment.
The contract, if ratified, will cover the nearly 3,000 teachers across the city’s 40 schools, Maryann Dickar, the spokeswoman for the Jersey City Board of Education, told Bloomberg Law.
The schools remained opened during the strike March 16 as the district staffed classes with substitutes and administrators, she said.
Details about the deal aren’t being released until the JCEA members vote on it, the date of which is still unclear.
News of teacher strikes is cropping up across the country.
The Oklahoma Education Association announced earlier this month that the union will shut down schools statewide starting April 2 unless the Legislature hikes school funding. Arizona educators have rallied at the state Capitol over legislation that could impact public school funding and have called for a statewide day of action March 28 at the Capitol.
The West Virginia labor dispute also shows what’s at stake with the U.S. Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME, which could overturn public sector “fair share” fee arrangements, McNicholas said. Fair-share fees are paid by nonmembers of a union that assists in collective bargaining and contract administration.
Instability exists where unions in right-to-work states have meaningful collective bargaining rights taken away, she said.
“You have workers that have to take different measures in order to accomplish fair pay,” McNicholas said.
Public school unions in West Virginia don’t negotiate contracts directly with individual school districts, as happens in other states. Oklahoma and Arizona are right-to-work states.
Oklahoma teachers received an average salary of $45,276 in 2016, and Arizona teachers got $47,218 that same year, according to National Education Association data.
West Virginia teachers were in a peculiar position, and it’s hard to compare that situation to New Jersey’s, Dan DiSalvo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told Bloomberg Law. The Manhattan Institute is a conservative think tank.
“I’m skeptical about West Virginia’s impact. The number of work stoppages and strikes have been at historic lows since the PATCO strike in 1980s,” DiSalvo said. “Public sector workers striking is still illegal in a lot of states,” which could still scare some unions away from pursuing a work stoppage in the long run.
DiSalvo was referring to the 1981 strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in which several thousand air traffic controllers walked off the job. The action was deemed illegal by President Ronald Reagan who fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.
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