How a teachers’ union is making its mark on NJ politics



Over the past three years, New Jersey’s largest teachers’ union has invested more than $ 15 million in its efforts to re-elect Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy. This number eclipses the contributions made by any other group in a state long dominated by special interest politics.

But with the gubernatorial election between Murphy and Republican businessman Jack Ciattarelli appearing to be tightening in his final days, the New Jersey Education Association has released a weapon perhaps more powerful than money: the feet. on earth.

Thousands of “Base for Murphy” staged one of the biggest voter education campaigns by the teachers’ union in recent memory.

Since mid-September, local and regional NJEA units in each county have organized phone banks, mass Zoom meetings, town halls, door-to-door canvassing sessions and an assortment of “walk-in”. work ”,“ women’s march ”, out-of-vote rallies and special events for“ members of color ”.

Of the roughly 203,000 contributing members of the NJEA – teachers, guards, cafeteria workers, retirees and their families – most appear to have been on the streets at some point this fall, especially in strongly democratic towns in the north. from Jersey where participation is key. to Murphy’s hopes.

Among the “biggest efforts” of the NJEA

“It’s definitely one of the greatest efforts teachers have ever made,” said Micah Rasmussen, a former Democrat strategist and official who is now director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “I can’t remember a time when they were more engaged and they have the infrastructure to make a huge impact. “

The organizational clout of the NJEA rests on hundreds of tight-knit locals that have come together in recent years under the mockery of former Governor Chris Christie and his budget cuts, salary caps and property tax freezes.

The union has 29 regional offices, each staffed full-time with professional negotiators, organizers and local education consultants paid in part by the National Education Association, which plans to collect more than $ 370 million in revenue over the course of the 2021-2022 school year, mainly union dues. .

In an interview with NJ Spotlight News, NJEA President Sean M. Spiller said the union’s street power would make the difference in a shrinking race as volunteers flood the electoral area in the coming days.

Credit: (John O’Boyle, courtesy of NJEA)
President of the NJEA Sean M. Spiller

Asked about the NJEA’s aggressive use of campaign money and alliances with black money political groups that protect the identity of donors, Spiller said he would not apologize. The union’s allegiance to Murphy, he said, comes down to one word.

“Respect,” Spiller said. “You had a governor who denigrated this profession for eight years. Now we have someone who really appreciates what the teachers are doing. He brought back respect.

Murphy also pumped $ 7 billion into the teachers’ pension fund, after decades of underpayment by Democratic and Republican governors.

Spiller: “We’re not going to apologize”

On Monday, Spiller was part of the state contingent that greeted President Biden in North Plainfield as he attended a transport event with Murphy. Later, the president of the NJEA hosted a municipal event with the governor’s wife, Tammy.

“We’re not going to apologize for a second for the work we’re doing on behalf of this candidate,” Spiller said. “We have the best schools in the country not only because of what our members do in school, but also because of what they do after hours – knocking on doors. “

The NJEA’s out-of-vote operation spans across New Jersey and relies heavily on the grassroots funding the union through annual dues that have steadily increased in recent years to as the power of the union increased.

Currently, active teachers pay $ 999 a year in dues, up from $ 700 less than half a decade ago. Inactive members, retirees and other supporters pay less. The contributions add up: In 2017, the most recent year for which the union disclosed financial data, the NJEA derived most of its $ 144 million in revenue from membership dues.

Salary and remuneration

The steady stream of dues allows the NJEA to reward its leaders: ten of the union’s 12 top leaders received more than $ 300,000 in salary and compensation for 2017, according to the most recent data.

Spiller’s salary has not been released. In 2017, however, Spiller, who is also mayor of Montclair for the first term, received $ 310,457 in salary and other benefits for his former position as vice president of the NJEA.

Spiller is one of the handful of New Jersey mayors who have the power to appoint members of his city’s school board, a legal quirk that prevents voters from having a say in how the Montclair school board works. A referendum that would change the structure of the school board and strip Spiller of his nominating power is on the local ballot on Tuesday.

“How can the mayor do right to Montclair taxpayers and serve the teachers’ union at the same time?” Asked former school board member Sergio Fernandez. “It’s a union that has grown too powerful, that’s just the fact.”

Other detractors of the union, including many prominent Republicans, argue that the CEO-level pay enjoyed by NJEA leaders like Spiller is unacceptable, especially as the public works under stagnant salaries and low levels of employment. inflation. They argue that the union’s aggressive tactics amount to a protective racket for Democratic incumbents and a massive grab on taxpayers.

Mike Lilley, head of the New Jersey-based Sunlight Policy Center think tank – which has long been critical of the NJEA – pointed out that the power of the union stems from its ability to drink taxpayer money through union dues.

Lilley also criticized the union’s growing dependence on nominally independent super PACs (political action committees) which have no contribution limits and limited disclosure practices. Garden State Forward, the PAC of the NJEA, has become a major financier of these black money groups, he said, sending tens of millions of dollars to committees allied with Murphy and other Democrats in the over the past half decade.

‘What’s wrong with this image?’

“Taxpayers pay teachers and the union takes dues directly from their paychecks,” Lilley said. “Then they turn around and use the money to buy politicians who are working against taxpayers. What’s wrong with this image? “

The NJEA is far from the only state union to run its own political action committee and use membership dues to fund political operations. Ciattarelli, a former state assembly member defying Murphy, has also benefited from large donations channeled through independent PACs by wealthy individuals and corporations.

After being pushed back for NJEA approval in April, Ciattarelli made direct advocacy for teacher support via a Facebook post “Jack Chat” appealing to the union base, which he said was being left out of the process. approval.

Ciattarelli addressed “teachers, bus drivers, para-professionals, guards, nurses, librarians, security personnel and administrative workers”, and said “the truth is that they [the NJEA] were never going to approve of me. They don’t even want you to know that I exist.

With just days until election day and some New Jerseyans already voting by early poll, Murphy’s victory, experts say, could come down to his ability to achieve big wins in populated urban counties that tend to vote. blue.

Can the NJEA participation machines prove the difference?

“It could very well,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan University Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship. “In the NJEA, the governor has a built-in organization to get the vote in all the places he needs to win. And there is no doubt that the NJEA will use this advantage. They have a track record. “

Even with the constant flow of money, its staff and its members, the NJEA does not always support the winners. The union’s $ 5 million campaign in 2017 to oust Senate Speaker Stephen Sweeney, as well as its efforts to re-elect New Jersey’s last ex-Goldman Sachs governor, Jon Corzine, failed.

In addition to backing Murphy, the union officially backed 30 Senate candidates and 67 Assembly candidates in this year’s election. Eighty-four mentions were for Democratic nominees and 13 for Republican nominees.

“The NJEA cannot guarantee victory,” said Rasmussen. “But you can be one hundred percent sure that they will do whatever they can to exercise their power. Like no other interest group in New Jersey, the NJEA puts its money where its mouth is.


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