Jeers and Cheers Greet Newark Teachers Contract Agreement

Dissident NTU faction helps ensure that contract is not a done deal

newark NTU hall
The historic contract agreement with Newark teachers that would establish the state’s first large-scale performance bonuses may not be a done deal after all.

In the aftermath of a raucous membership meeting Tuesday night that saw teachers openly criticizing their union leaders, the president of the Newark Teachers Union was making no guarantees yesterday that the deal would win ratification in a day-long vote on Monday.

The vote will be held at the union’s Broad Street headquarters from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“It’s in the hands of the members at this point,” said Joseph Del Grosso, the longtime NTU president, “The way that meeting went, all I’ll say it’s in the hands of the members.”

In an interview yesterday, Del Grosso maintained that the agreement reached with state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson — with the blessing of Gov. Chris Christie — was the best deal the union could hope to win. It includes average raises of nearly 14 percent over three years and retroactive raises for the past two years between $3,000 and $12,500.

“If you look at the entire picture, this is not a bad contract,” he said. “There are a lot of [teachers] unions out there getting zeros in terms of raises and no retroactive pay at all.”

But a sudden and powerful player in the debate is a dissident faction within the union known as the Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus.

Once considered a loud but small element in the 3,300-member union, it has mobilized considerable opposition to the contract and openly said it would mount a challenge to Del Grosso in his expected bid for reelection next May.

Its leaders were among those speaking out at the Tuesday night membership meeting held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, where Del Grosso was repeatedly shouted down in defending the contract deal.

The chief complaint, caucus leaders said, is the contact’s provisions for two salary guides that they maintain will split the union: one that would provide bonuses, another that wouldn’t.

The first would be required for new teachers and those with bachelor’s degrees. Teachers with master’s degrees or those who hold a doctorate would have the one-time option to move to the new guide or stay with the standard one.

“It only pits new and veteran teachers against each other, those with B.A.s against those with advanced degrees,” said Leah Owens, an English teacher at Central High School who chairs the new caucus.

“It creates a division that is unnecessary at a time when we need to be more unified than ever,” Owens said last night in an interview.

Other concerns have surfaced as well. The bonuses are expected to be paid out of the $100 million fund that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg set up for the Newark schools two years ago, one that has stirred both praise and resentment. Critics of the contract have asked what will happen to the bonuses when the private money runs out.

And as for the above-average raises in the agreement, Owens said there were other givebacks in the deal that offset them, including the possibility of longer hours and greater responsibilities

“This is a carrot on a stick,” she said. “Why would they give us all this money. What is behind Door No. 1?”

The group met last night at American History High School and drew close to 80 NTU members, its largest turnout yet, Owens said. Much of the discussion was on the contract and how the group will continue its campaign on social media and elsewhere to fight it.

Owens said the discussion did turn to the caucus mounting a challenge to Del Grosso and his leadership next spring. “If we want to remain strong, we need to revitalize our union,” she said.

Del Grosso said the election is the prime motivation for the new group and its leaders. “This is more political than anything else,” he said.

Nonetheless, they have him worried, and he said the union would be mounting its own campaign for the contract with teams going into schools to talk to its members. The American Federation of Teachers, the national union that includes the NTU, is contributing staffers to those teams as well.

“We’re going in during lunch hours, talking to them during their prep times,” he said. “We’re making the rounds.”

Del Grosso said they have so far heard generally positive reviews in those meetings, but he did not rule out it could go other way next Monday.

“It’s my plan if this goes down, I’ll put [the critics] on the negotiating team,” he said. “Let them go to the governor and see how they do.”