Teachers in Handcuffs

Although strikes by public employees are illegal in New Jersey, the members of the Middletown Township Education Association could not have expected that their strike, which began November 29, would land 228 of them in jail...

But when the 1,000 striking teachers and secretaries ignored a court order to go back to work on December 3, the mass jailing started.

MTEA President Diane Swaim said that members waiting to appear before the judge expressed the same defiance that had already led to the imprisonment of many of their colleagues. They gathered at the back of the courthouse and cheered as their handcuffed colleagues were led off to jail.

On December 7 the union agreed to non-binding arbitration and the jailed members were released. "We felt that the members needed to be home," Swaim explained. "We had asked for a sacrifice far beyond what had ever been made in the past. And it was not going to move our Board of Education. The spectacle of their employees being hauled off in handcuffs did not move their hearts."

HEALTH CARE COSTS

The main issue of the strike was the board's insistence that union members pay a percentage of rising health care costs instead of a flat annual fee. Yet, said teacher Philip Couch, "it takes far more than the health care costs to drive longtime teachers to jail."

The union's frustration focused on the board's uncompromising stand. In 1998 the union struck after going without a contract for two years. After the board rejected the recommendations of a fact-finder brought in to break the stalemate, it imposed a contract on the union, knowing that the union was forced by law to accept it.

The union was determined not to go without a contract again. In June, members voted to strike if they did not have a new contract by September.

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However, September 11 hit Middletown hard. More than a dozen residents were killed at the World Trade Center. Recognizing the community's distress, the MTEA put off bargaining until November 11. But it also promised a strike by November 30 if it did not have a contract. The board agreed to bargaining, but not until at the end of November.

The board showed no more flexibility after the strike began. The union proposed binding arbitration on December 3 so that the schools could be reopened the very next day. The board refused and the jailing started.

QUALITY OF PUBLIC EDUCATION

MTEA teacher Margaret DeLuca described her experience in jail: "It was terrible. You're an inmate. You give up your privacy and dignity." Given a graying teaching workforce, she's worried about the future of quality education in her district.

"I don't think the board realizes the long-term impact of this," DeLuca said. "Many of the younger teachers, some having started in September, will be looking for teaching jobs in other school districts next year. How can they be treated like this? Why work for somebody who throws you in jail?"

As in many communities, Middletown taxpayers vote on the tax assessments that fund the Board of Education. The last two school budgets failed as a result of opposition to tax increases. The deficit this year alone amounted to $1.2 million. Funding in this district has been far below the state average for many years.

Many of the cuts imposed in past years have not only affected teachers and secretaries but have also led to a sliding quality of education. Teachers have more classes, with more kids in each class, and inadequate facilities and supplies. Vocational programs have been eliminated.

Despite the funding crisis, Philip Couch said that MTEA members have been doing their jobs. Test scores have remained above the state average. "We've been carrying the load," Couch said. "Yet there comes a point when we refuse to take a hit for our own family through higher health care costs when the community doesn't take a responsibility of passing a school budget."