A Contract is a Contract…Then Again

Gov. Christie is pressing public employees across the board to renegotiate their contracts. Steve Adubato discusses the potential implications of these actions.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Governor Chris Christie is asking—some say demanding—that teachers and other public employees renegotiate their contracts. This is unprecedented in New Jersey. One of the specific challenges that the new governor has put out to public school educators is that they forgo contractually agreed-upon one-year raises of between 4 and 5 percent on average for one year.

The governor’s argument is that by relinquishing those raises, unions can help school districts save millions of dollars and potentially avoid layoffs and drastic cuts in curriculum and extra-curricular activities—not to mention higher property taxes.

Predictably, the response from the educational establishment has been to remind the governor that these contracts are locked in place and not renegotiable. The position is understandable. Yet there are communities in the state where public employee unions have shown a willingness to reopen their contracts and give up salary increases in an effort to save their colleagues’ jobs.

Consider the case of the West Essex Regional School District, where all school district employees agreed to forgo a 4 percent negotiated salary increase. “We didn’t look at this as a ‘we versus they,’” says Anthony Janish, president of the local teachers’ union. “We looked at it as a win-win.”

The West Essex Regional School District saved about $700,000, which was half of the proposed state aid cut in the Christie budget. As a result, jobs were saved and the potential for a huge property tax increase looks like it has been avoided.

Similarly, in Montclair, the local teachers’ union agreed to forgo a scheduled raise, saving the school system $900,000 and reducing the expected loss of jobs.

These are positive signs. Will other unions follow suit?

“The issue is whether the parties are willing to recognize reality,” says former New Jersey Labor commissioner Ray Bramucci. “A contract is a contract; however, contracts are renegotiated every day, especially when there are financial difficulties. For example, the contracts with the autoworkers, one of the strongest unions in the world, were renegotiated several times.”

What’s in it for the unions? By forgoing wage increases for a finite period (one year), public employees could help close the growing divide between themselves and those without similar benefits and guarantees. The teachers’ unions in particular can show that they put the interests of children first. And Christie has offered to sweeten the pot somewhat by giving back small amounts of aid to districts where teachers agree to wage freezes.

Given Christie’s drastic state aid cuts, all parties who can affect local budgets are going to have to be openminded. The level of trust must be greater than this state has ever seen. Indeed, we are going to have to “jump off the cliff together”—as the governor put it—because the status quo just doesn’t work.

Yes, a contract is a contract, and they have to be respected. Yet, in dire times, flexibility and a willingness to consider the bigger picture are essential. One can only hope that the examples in West Essex and Montclair set a new standard for what is possible in a state where hundreds of municipalities have their backs against the wall.

Steve Adubato, PhD., is an Emmy Award-winning anchor for Thirteen/WNET and a media analyst and columnist for MSNBC.com, who also appears regularly on CBS 2. He is the author of the book Make the Connection, as well as his newest book What Were They Thinking?, which examines highly publicized and often controversial public relations and media mishaps. For more information, log on to stand-deliver.com.

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