Still outspoken, if no longer quite as militant, Joseph Del Grosso has been the president of the Newark Teachers Union – the state’s largest teachers local -- for 18 years, for a total of nine terms in all.
Yesterday, he barely made it to his 10th term.
In what was by far his closest race yet, Del Grosso was re-elected president of the 3,500-member union by a, squeaking by a challenger from an upstart faction that had been critical of Del Grosso’s leadership and, in particular, the Newark school district’s new labor contract.
The new faction represented by the “New Vision” slate did gain a real victory, too, winning 18 of 31 seats on the NTU’s executive board – making it the first time since his first term that Del Grosso’s slate will not control the board.
Del Grosso last night was philosophical about the narrow election to his 10th two-year term, remembering that when he was arrested during the Newark teachers strike in 1971, he was part of what was called the “Newark Nine.”
“I guess nine is the magic number,” he said yesterday.
Del Grosso said he recognizes that the union has been changing and that the new labor contract – with its imposition of new performance bonuses and a new evaluation system – has stirred discontent within his membership.
Drawing statewide, if not national, attention, the new contract was personally negotiated by Del Grosso in conjunction with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union. Weingarten had been a vocal defender of Del Grosso and his role in reaching a contract deal.
But Del Grosso also noted that there was an extremely low turnout in the mail-in election, with just over 1,200 votes cast, which he believes spoke to a larger issue that may have fed the discontent.
“I think people are overwhelmed,” he said. “There are a lot of changes associated with the contract and the whole peer review, and it will be a rocky road in the beginning until they understand they will be gaining controls.
“But there’s a lot chaos in the district right now,” he said. “It’s just overwhelming people, and they are feeling apathetic and skeptical.”
Branden Rippey, Del Grosso’s main challenger, said the split vote was evidence that that Newark Education Workers (NEW) caucus that backed the New Vision slate was being heard.
“Our goal wasn’t to take over the NTU,” said Rippey, a history teacher at Science Park High School. “Our goal was to build a movement that would fight for our rights and fight for our jobs.”
“We obviously ran with the intention of winning some leadership positions as well, but we are satisfied with the results,” added Leah Owens, chair of the NEW Caucus and an English teacher at Central High School. “Our goal was to bring some different ideas, and we have given voice to workers who haven’t been heard in a long time.”
Owens agreed that it wasn’t just the contract that sparked discontent. She said it’s equally about the reforms enacted by state-appointed superintendent Cami Anderson as part of the state’s ongoing operation of the district.
“It’s largely about these corporate education reforms that are completely destroying public education,” she said. “It’s about our working conditions that are deteriorating, and the profession that isn’t what it used to be.”
What the split union vote means to the school district has yet to be seen. In reaching agreement with Anderson on the labor deal, Del Grosso may now have a harder time cooperating with the superintendent.
“What we will do now is execute power,” Rippey said last night. “The board has been a rubber stamp for a long time, and now he’ll have a real board to deal with.”
But Del Grosso also was hardly shy in criticizing Anderson on some of her policies, either, and has been especially critical of the state’s ongoing control of the Newark district. He said last night that he expects that some of the new members of the leadership team will find things look different from the inside.
“They will have to learn to what procedures they can and cannot do,” he said. “Now they will get the opportunity to see it from the inside.”
For her part, Anderson said in an emailed statement last night: "The Newark Teacher's Union is an important part of our public education system. Under Joe's progressive leadership, I look forward to greater partnership together on behalf of our kids."
Del Grosso and the new board will be sworn in on Friday. Del Grosso said he had no intention of this term being his last.
“If I had won by a lot of votes, it probably would have been my last,” he said. “But I think it will take another term to be satisfied.”