NJEA's Strategic Stumble

Here’s NJEA President Barbara Keshishian explaining how the State is entirely at fault for NJ’s fiscal mess by failing to make pension payments: “It’s time to stop intentionally misleading the public,” said Keshishian. “Governor Christie and legislators are misleading the public in order to cover up the ugly truth: that the state is responsible for this mess, by refusing to comply with its legal obligation to fund the pension system.”

Here’s Senator Sweeney in today’s Star-Ledger: "The unions claim this all could have been avoided had the state made its regular payments into the pension system. However, the fact is even if the state had made every payment to the penny, the system would still be nearly 30 percent unfunded — a multibillion-dollar gap… The union leaders need to take off their blinders and stop ignoring their own complicity in this problem."

Someone’s right and someone’s wrong. Maybe it doesn’t matter. The fact is that the current system is unsustainable – the Legislature’s agreement to boost pensions 9% as a freebie in 2001 alone added $4 billion in liability – and the system’s broken. Something to agree on. There’s no possible way to balance the books on this one without meaningful reform. It’s math.

Yet President Keshishian, Exec. Dir. Vince Giordano, and other NJEA bigwigs remain resolute in their conviction that any degree of health benefits and pension reform is unpalatable, a humiliation too crushing to be borne. They promote their victimization, emote in outraged tones the injustice handed to them by fatcat politicians intent on impoverishing saintly public servants. Where’s Tallulah Bankhead when you need her?

In fact, the new Fairleigh-Dickinson poll out today shows that the public favors teacher contributions to health care benefits by 78%-19%; even public employees favor this reform by 51%-45%.

Maybe the members of NJEA are smarter than their leaders. They understand that the union is losing the public relations battle with its unswerving devotion to a lost cause. They understand that the current imbalance in sharing health care costs and pensions between public employees and the government is unsustainable. All other government employees already contribute to health benefits and, as Senator Sweeney points out, workers in the private sector already contribute more than $3,000 annually. But the NJEA leadership is trapped in a local optimum, unable to acknowledge that the union’s power has dissipated in spite of strong-armed denials by Giordano, who told The Record on Sunday that “We’re as strong as we’ve ever been…We’re not out of the ring.”

Herbert Stein, famous economist, coined what is now known as Herbert Stein’s Law: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

Free advice to NJEA: unshackle yourselves from that local optimum. It couldn’t go on forever, and now it’s grinding to a halt. Your prideful stubbornness is undermining your ability to think strategically and represent your members intelligently. (Case in point: NJEA’s insistence that its failure to successfully market Corzine, even after spending more than half a million dollars of its members’ money on ads and consultants, was an “organizational victory.”) Most teachers know that it’s unreasonable to expect annual raises of 4.5% and to make no contributions to health benefits. They know that NJEA’s power is waning and that NJ’s zeitgeist heavily favors reasonable concessions from its educators. (See post below.) NJEA’s leaders need to wise up and make that grand gesture of concession to protect our teachers.