JERSEY CITY, N.J.—Teachers in New Jersey’s second-largest city went on strike Friday, Mar. 16, after months of negotiations failed to yield a deal that would lower their health-care costs.
“Quality, affordable health care is a fundamental right for everyone,” Jersey City Education Association President Ron Greco said in a statement announcing the strike. “My members are prepared to step up and take on this fight for everyone, knowing full well that it will be a long, difficult process.”
The city kept schools open for half a day. Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas called the strike “reckless and irresponsible” in a statement.
The JCEA’s 4,000 members, who include teachers, paraprofessionals, school nurses, secretaries, and guidance counselors, have been working under an expired contract since Sept. 1, a week before the school year started. Jersey City teachers last went on strike in the fall of 1998, when its schools were under state control and they felt its evaluations were arbitrary and harsh. That strike ended 11 days later after a judge ruled that teachers could be fired if they didn’t go back to work.
This time, health-insurance costs are a main issue. A 2011 law backed by then-Gov. Chris Christie gave control of public employees’ health coverage to a state panel, taking it out of collective bargaining. The law, Chapter 78, mandated that workers cover up to 35% of their health-insurance premiums, paying a minimum of 1.5% of their salary. Jersey City school employees now contribute about 20% of the district’s health-insurance costs, according to the Jersey Journal.
“I’ve been in the system for 20 years and I’m finally making a decent salary, and now I’m paying $1,400 a month for premiums,” a physical education teacher at Dr. Ronald E. McNair Academic High School, a magnet school in the Downtown neighborhood, told the Journal.
The expired contract “included onerous health-care contributions that have led to many Jersey City educators seeing reductions in their take-home pay year after year,” the New Jersey Education Association said in a statement. “JCEA members have demanded that the Board of Education recognize that those contribution levels are unsustainable and to work with the association to provide meaningful relief, but so far the board has refused.”
Last October, then-state Treasurer Ford M. Scudder notified school employees that their health-insurance premiums would go up by 13% in 2018. “You should understand the reason you will be paying that much more for health care in 2018,” he wrote, blaming the NJEA for refusing to accept “reasonable reforms” such as increasing deductibles and copayments and charging more for out-of-network doctors.
The law taking health benefits out of collective bargaining was supposed to sunset after four or five years, but a state court ruled in 2015 that it didn’t.
“JCEA members are not just taking a stand for themselves,” NJEA Vice President Sean M. Spiller said in a statement. “They are also making a strong declaration that affordable health care is a necessity for everyone. By boldly refusing to accept the intolerable status quo, they are shining a light on a crisis that affects their own families, the families of their students, and many other families in Jersey City and across New Jersey. ”