Defend our jobs! Defend our unions!
December 14, 2001 | Page 12
NJ teachers sent to jail
By Pranav Jani
MORE THAN 200 teachers of the Middletown school district in central New Jersey defied court injunctions against a strike and went to jail in their struggle for a fair contract. Ultimately, judges imprisoned more than 230 members of the Middletown Township Education Association (MTEA)--the most since 265 teachers were locked up in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1978.
The teachers were freed and returned to work December 10 after state officials agreed to mediate the key issue--the school board's demand to increase health care premiums from $250 to $860, followed by 7 percent increases over the next two years.
Negotiations were ongoing as Socialist Worker went to press. But the teachers remained defiant.
After the strike began November 29, county judges summoned teachers to the courtroom individually December 3 and gave them an ultimatum: return to work or go to jail.
Critics called the strikers "anti-American" and "unpatriotic." A board member even told a reporter interviewing teachers to "stop interviewing the Taliban" and to report on the school board instead.
"To equate us with the Taliban is beyond reproach," said an MTEA member angrily. "They have absolutely no respect for us."
Again and again, the teachers showed that they would rather go to jail than go against their principles--even as their colleagues were handcuffed before their eyes.
Turning the legal sessions into rallies, the unionists told of the disrespect they have long faced from the school board as their coworkers' cheers filled the air both inside and outside the courthouse.
The following day, hundreds of unionists gathered at the courthouse. The school marching band played, and Middletown football players came out to support their jailed coach, a proud unionist who had won a state championship only two days before.
Jim Pincus, a math teacher in the district for 33 years, told Socialist Worker that the board had not been negotiating in good faith since a bitter contract dispute in 1998 that led to a previous walkout.
But the viciousness of the state and the board this time surprised the teachers. Several were jailed despite health problems and kids that they needed to take care of.
Robyn Dachik, for instance, required medical testing because of a possible tumor in her breast. But Judge Ira Kreizman refused to show any leniency--since Dachik had not made any appointments yet. "There are doctors in jail," Kreizman added.
To increase the pressure further, three judges doubled the sentences of the jailed teachers to two weeks and hinted that they might begin the mass firings requested by the board.
And since Middletown lost 36 people in the World Trade Center attacks and many are experiencing layoffs, the school board and its allies seized the opportunity to attack the teachers as spoiled and disruptive.
"There is really no 'good time' to go on strike," Pincus said. "You have to either fight for what you believe in and for your dignity--or just give in."
Carole DiSalvo, a 23-year teacher and Teacher of the Year who was jailed for a few days, said she was "appalled and disgusted that 230-odd people had to go to jail because they fought for their rights and their dignity."
Ron Blandon, a science teacher at Thorne Middle School in Middletown, explained the confidence of the teachers by saying, "Once you get in a union, you have to stand by each other and by your own convictions."
"Sometimes good people have to stand up to fight an unjust law," said Barbara Guenther, a history teacher.
When the union agreed to end the strike and to continue negotiations with the school board December 7, the judges freed all the jailed teachers.
Hundreds of teachers, students and family members waited for hours to welcome their heroes. The unity and courage of the Middletown teachers has inspired workers all around the country.
Charles Jenkins, a member of the Transit Workers Union Local 100 in New York, came to the Freehold courthouse with a contingent of fellow union members to show their solidarity. "We have to be united in the cause of labor, because even though this is over here in Jersey, it affects us," Jenkins said. "We are honored to support these fighters. If we show solidarity like this, we could make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen to anyone else again."
Pratt & Whitney workers walk out for job security
By Geoff Bailey
FIVE THOUSAND members of International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 91 were on strike in mid-December over job security and retirement benefits against aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut.
While much of the airline industry has been hit by the recession and the impact of September 11, Pratt & Whitney's profits have actually increased by 17 percent in the third quarter. And the company recently won a $226 million contract to produce engines for the F-22 fighter.
"The company is taking advantage of what happened on September 11," Don Mosher, a 23-year veteran at Pratt, told Socialist Worker. "They've only benefited from more military contracts. Now they are throwing what happened back in the public's face."
Pratt is offering a 10 percent raise over three years. But workers--who walked out December 3--say their fight isn't just about money.
IAM jobs at Pratt's four Connecticut plants have been slashed from 18,700 in 1989 to just 5,100 today. For many workers the last straw came during the course of the last contract, when management tried to illegally remove additional work from the plants.
The union took them to court and won, but now Pratt wants to remove all job security language from the contract. Pratt claims that they need the changes to remain competitive. But management can hardly plead poverty.
Some local politicians have criticized the union for being unpatriotic and for striking so close to Christmas. But as one worker told Socialist Worker, "If you think it's easy telling your kids that Christmas is going to be small this year, you're wrong. But this is what we have to do in order to make sure that next year there will be a Christmas. And many of us put our kids before patriotism."