Jersey Teachers Defy Backlash, Win Strikes

Nearly two years have passed since the jailings of 228 striking teachers in Middletown, New Jersey in December 2001 (see Labor Notes January 2002). Virtually every member of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state association with which the Middletown Township Education Association is affiliated, was touched by the sight of teachers in handcuffs on the steps of the Freehold Courthouse.

After Middletown, many across the state sounded the death knell for strikes in the state. Some local association leaders and members announced they would not go on strike because they were not willing to go to jail.

Some associations acquiesced to board of education demands for lower salary increases and the diminution of health benefits without so much as a whimper. Many thought New Jersey’s days as a national leader in collective bargaining were over.

Additionally, one of the nation’s most restrictive collective bargaining laws, New Jersey’s Public Employment Relations Act, remained in place. Among other provisions, this law allows a board of education to impose its “last best offer” after mediation and fact-finding are exhausted and do not result in a mutually agreed upon contract.

Yet despite these obstacles, since Middletown, two New Jersey locals in two very different communities have struck and won, indicating that NJEA is as strong as ever.


As one of New Jersey’s wealthiest and most exclusive communities, Princeton’s schools have a national reputation for excellence. But by 2002, teachers in Princeton were tired of high achievement and low salaries. In September of that year the Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA) walked picket lines for two days.

The Princeton strike headquarters, while technically not within the community’s boundaries, was in a large shopping mall. Since the largest building was unoccupied, the union’s action committee commandeered the parking area and held a rally for the membership.

Leaders spoke, members sang picket line songs they had created, and community supporters gathered. This gathering place proved to be an effective organizing tool and was instrumental in maintaining the solidarity of the membership.

Action committee member Joanne Ryan summed it up for her colleagues. “I never thought I’d see the day when PREA members would take this step. But we worked all summer long organizing our members and letting them and the public know the issues.”

“We made a decision that we were being treated unfairly by the board,” continued Ryan. “Our only course of action was the one we took. Civil disobedience is an honorable act and I believe PREA and its members did the honorable thing.”


The remainder of the fall saw ripples of labor unrest, but no strikes. Then in June 2003, after working 11 months under an expired contract, the North Warren Regional Education Association and the board of education entered fact-finding. The threat of contract imposition loomed. Members were angry and not interested in allowing the board to impose a contract, even at the end of the year.

In an unusual step, in the farthest reaches of northwest New Jersey, NWREA members went on strike the morning of June 4.



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The major issues in dispute for the union’s teachers, secretaries, custodians, and teacher assistants were salaries and health benefits. But the overriding reason for the strike was the union’s decision that it would not permit the board of education to unilaterally impose a contract.

The threat of imposition increased when the board refused to return to the bargaining table for three days.

Association leaders knew, however, that the Crisis Resolution Bill, which would strip the power to impose contracts from boards of education and was one of NJEA’s top priorities, was scheduled for debate in both houses of the state legislature in the coming days.

As opposed to Princeton, North Warren is a rural community. One building houses the middle and high schools and it is nestled behind trees off the main road. This created challenges for picketers: 100 people had to be divided up into small groups to picket the building itself and to have picketers visible to traffic on the main road.

The Crisis Headquarters was on the second floor of a strip mall and well set back from the road. Despite a small space in a remote location, the Crisis Headquarters, as is usually the case in strikes, became the center of activity for members.

NWREA remained on strike for three days. An all-night bargaining session under the direction of a state-appointed neutral arbitrator brought a settlement Saturday morning. The strike was over.


A feeling of euphoria coupled with relief swept through the membership.

Nicole Georgehalli, a first-year teacher, addressed her colleagues that morning: “I’ve never been treated with more respect and love by all of you than I have been over these three days. You’ve made me proud to be a teacher and a member of this union.”

Shortly after the strike, the Crisis Resolution Bill passed, and it was signed into law in July. Today public school employees in New Jersey no longer live with the threat of a unilaterally imposed contract. A major legislative priority for NJEA has brought some balance back to the bargaining process.

But the actions of the Princeton and North Warren Regional Education Associations proved that when treated with disrespect, public school employees will risk fines and incarceration rather than meekly allow the unilateral imposition of a contract.

Karen Joseph taught in New Jersey for 15 years. She is now NJEA’s Associate Director for Public Relations.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #292, July 2003. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.