New Jersey Unionists Held in Contempt, Sent to Jail

“You are holding the keys to the jail cell,” said N.J. Superior Judge Clarkson S. Fisher, Jr., as he sentenced some 43 striking teacher-union members from the Middletown (N.J.) Township Educ. Ass’n., to a mere week in jail Dec. 4 for defying a court back-to-work order, joining 4 unionists already jailed. N.J. state law forbids public employees to strike. Besides jailing 47, Fisher declined to send 22 to jail because of a variety of family and medical problems. They were still found in contempt, however. Two other teachers told the judge they would obey his order and return to work.

This is the second strike in three years in the Middletown district. The most recent contract expired June 30. The two sides postponed bargaining after the Sept. 11 massacre, which killed more than 30 Middletown residents. Discussions resumed Nov. 30, but after several hours of meetings, union bosses declared the strike. Hundreds of strikers were served with warrants over the Dec. 1-2 weekend and were called into court alphabetically. Douglas Kovats, Middletown Bd. of Educ. attorney asked whether they were aware of the judge’s back-to-work order, whether they had complied, and whether they planned to comply.

There was a “collective sobbing of teachers” who were “stunned by the start of the jailings,” reported the N.Y. Times. Allyson Bajor, 12, stood crying in a hallway outside the courtroom as her mother, Diane, was hauled away in handcuffs for being in contempt of court. However, hundreds of other striking unionists turned defiant and exuberant.

Fisher sought to avoid the jailings at least 3 times by offering to order around-the-clock contract bargaining under his supervision if the unionists obeyed the order he issued on the first day of the strike, Nov. 29, and returned to Middletown’s 17 schools immediately. But MTEA lawyer, Sanford Oxfeld, rejected the offer. Striking unionist said they would not return to class until MBE signed a “fair” contract settlement.

Unionists acknowledged that most Middletown residents don’t support them. Lisa Rosado, a fourth-grade teacher, said she was largely rebuffed by residents when she telephoned them seeking support a few weeks ago. “I think they all hate us,” Rosado told the Bergen County Record. “They think we’re being greedy. They think we’re being brainwashed.” New Jersey teachers salaries are the highest in the Nation; they are 31% above the national average, according to census figures. The average annual teacher’s salary in N.J. is $51,468, $2,304 higher than in the second state, Conn..

Unionists denounced MBE during the judge’s questioning. Each time Fisher found small groups in contempt and deputies led them out of the courtroom for processing, the 150 unionists in the courtroom stood and applauded their sentenced colleagues. Fisher, called “remarkably tolerant” by the Bergen County Record,did nothing to silence these demonstrations.

The union prepared their minions for incarceration. Unionists who were sent to jail came to court dressed for comfort in jeans, T-shirts, and sweat shirts. A union flier had advised them to bring $50 to use at the jail commissary. “You may be incarcerated with [non-union] members,” the flier said. “However, an effort will be made to keep you in an area separate from hardened criminals. . . . At all times, be cooperative. Do not argue with anyone. ” Gary Hilton, the jail director said the unionists were to be housed two to a cell, with a toilet, sink, and bunk beds. Lights go out at 9:45 p.m. and the wake-up call is at 6 a.m. “It will not be pleasant. They will not enjoy their stay with us,” Hilton said.

The atmosphere outside was “festive.” Three members of the marching band of the Middletown North High School came with saxophone, trumpet, and clarinet, and played pep tunes. About 10 members of the football team from Middletown South High School, which won a state championship game Dec. 1, came in support of the head coach and an assistant coach, both now in jail. Other unionists gathered outside a rear door and cheered handcuffed colleagues each time deputies led them to vans for the trips to the Monmouth County Jail which can only hold 300 inmates. Jail officials said they were prepared to use “temporary housing,” if necessary, to incarcerate more unionists.

Despite the rally, MBE attorney Michael Gross said that about 100 teachers returned to work, on Dec. 5 up from 50 on Dec. 4. Union boss Diane Swaim, said she doubted that 100 had split with the union, but she did not know how many had gone back to work.

The judge’s action, requested by MBE, is the first jailing of striking teachers in N.J. since 1978, when 26 teachers spent 26 days behind bars in Camden. Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the N.J. Sch. Bds. Ass’n, said teacher walkouts are rare, “mostly because they’re illegal.” [Record (Bergen County, N.J.), N.Y. Times 12/5/01]

The union called a truce Dec. 7, without a new contract and after 228 unionists were jailed. Negotiations were postponed and the union ordered teachers back to work on Dec. 10. However, bitterness lingered. Some teachers chose to defy a joint request by the MBE and MTEA that they refrain from discussing the strike during class.

“The teachers were giving the students a lot of attitude,” said Ashley Petrisky, 16, a sophomore at Middletown North High School. “You could tell they didn’t want to be here. ” Some students said their teachers gave a minimum effort. “We really didn’t do much,” said Sean O’Brien, 15. “My teachers handed out a couple work sheets. It was really boring. ” “My teachers taught a little bit, but it was mostly a review,” said Mark Lyon, 17, a junior.

Not all were back at work even. Three resigned in protest, and two reportedly walked off the job during the first day back. Schools Superintendent Jack DeTalvo said attendance among teachers and staff was 95%. DeTalvo said that teachers were given orders to “get back to the curriculum,” and that administrators were sent around to classrooms to ensure that lessons were being taught.

Some parents who came to pick up their kids at dismissal at Middletown North said the teachers are out of step with the times. “They hurt the kids is all they did. And for what? ” asked Bill Brown, waiting in his car outside the high school to pick up his daughter. “The way they came out in handcuffs, with their hands raised, they showed the kids it was cool to go to jail. You want somebody like that teaching your kids? “

Marc Sim, 17, a senior was resentful. “They want to use us as leverage — as a pawn in the game,” he said of the teachers.

“My husband is a union pipefitter, so I have nothing against unions,” parent Cindy Getto, explained, as she waited for her daughter. “But we have to pay for part of our health benefits. This has been going on way too long. ” Health benefits has been a major sticking point in the negotiations and has been for many years noted Getto. [Record (Bergen County, N.J.), 12/11/01]