A group of dissident teachers in Newark, New Jersey have been fighting for almost three years now against reforms that they believe will weaken public schools and negatively impact teachers’ ability to do their job. The Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus is in its own words:
A social movement-based caucus comprised of members of the Newark Teachers Union and the Newark community that is dedicated to three big goals: 1) the revitalization of the NTU as a force for social justice in Newark; 2) the defense of public education from privatization and the support of market-free solutions to transform public schools; 3) the establishment of solidarity with education workers and the Newark community to improve living and working conditions in the city.
Formed in January 2012, the caucus had plenty of time to organize a slate for the June 2013 Newark Teachers Union (NTU) elections, headed by Branden Rippey, who ran against incumbent Joseph Del Grosso for President of the Local. The slate ran much of their campaign on criticism of Cami Anderson, Newark’s Superintendent of Schools. Anderson promoted an increase in charter schools, standardized testing, and merit pay for teachers whose classrooms met certain testing benchmarks. NEW Caucus members argued that charter schools weaken traditional public schools by creating a public-private dichotomy and standardized testing is a poor way of measuring student learning. Prior to the 2013 elections, union President Joseph Del Grosso negotiated a contract that included the controversial merit pay clause, which her terms “performance pay,” earning the ire of many unionists, who saw the clause as a slap in the face to traditional union values.
The NEW Caucus found inspiration in the Chicago Teachers Union, which made national headlines in September 2012 when CTU members, frustrated by stalled contract negotiations with the City of Chicago, voted overwhelmingly to strike. Striking CTU members called for smaller classrooms; preferential hiring for teachers laid off due to school closures; the expansion of art, music, and physical education programs; and improvements to salaries and health insurance. This was their first strike since 1987.
Although Rippey lost the 2013 election, the vote was extremely close; when all the ballots had been tallied, Del Grosso won by just nine votes. Additionally, seventeen of the twenty-nine seats on the NTU Executive Board were won by members of the NEW Caucus slate, including several members of the founding steering committee.
Despite these wins, NEW Caucus members have found it difficult to promote change from within, and have been disappointed by their progress. With another election looming, Rippey is still deciding if he will run again. In the meantime, he has been focusing on education, holding Saturday teach-ins about the history of the labor movement, education, the decline of American cities and suburban sprawl, and movement building in an effort to get both rank-and-file unionists and community members more involved in their community.