By Ted Sherman
Every day Gov. Chris Christie finds something else to loathe about the state teachers union.
Looking to cut school aid, public pension benefits and teacher salaries, he calls the New Jersey Education Association the “bully of State Street” and says it is run by “crass union bosses.” Last week he attacked what he called a half-million-dollar pay package for a top administrator, labeling it “outrageous and obscene.”
In other appearances, he has pushed the union and its members to accept a pay freeze, amid a widening state budget shortfall.
For its part, the union says the Republican governor is trying to demonize it in an effort to push through an agenda by executive fiat, and it accuses Christie of trading the future of the state’s children in exchange for tax cuts for the rich.
It is far too early to tell who will prevail, but an analysis of the NJEA’s budget and practices shows why it is a voice to be reckoned with, from Trenton to Washington.
Everything about it is big.
A state affiliate of the National Education Association, the NJEA represents, through its locals, nearly every school district in New Jersey. Its more than 203,000 members include teachers, retirees and college students. Dues are assessed on a sliding scale, with teachers paying the highest, $731 a year. The organization generates more than $107 million a year in revenues.
According to its most recent federal tax filing, last May, the group spent more than $5 million a year in advertising, $2.7 million in travel and nearly $2 million in public relations.
NJEA officers and top staff were paid $1.3 million. Of that total, executive director Vincent Giordano received $421,615 in salary and $128,508 in deferred compensation and contributions to benefit plans, according to the filing.
Union officials say the pay represented a temporary, one-year spike for Giordano, a former middle school science and social studies teacher who joined the NJEA staff as a field representative in 1970. He is now paid $300,000.
Barbara Keshishian, the NJEA president, is currently paid $256,450. Vice President Wendell Steinhauer and Secretary-Treasurer Marie Blistan are paid $170,974 each, according to the union, which said the salaries are appropriate to the demands of a 24-hour job.
Separately, the NJEA’s political action committee raised tens of thousands of dollars to support Ð or oppose Ð candidates seeking elective office. And with its well-organized structure and large war chest, it has long been a group few elected officials dare challenge. Some, in fact, would not return phone calls for this story.
Over the past six years, campaign finance records show, the committee has given $5 million to Democratic candidates and the election committees that control the Legislature, along with $1 million to the Republicans.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3, of West Deptford says he always knows when the powerful state teachers union has some kind of issue with him. The other week, at least a dozen members of the NJEA came to a Gloucester County freeholder meeting, where he presides as director. They did not speak.
“They just came to stare at me,” said Sweeney, an ironworkers union leader and the chief architect of a series of reform bills targeting public pension and benefits packages.
The intent and the message were clear, he said. They were watching him. And they wanted him to know it.
“They are very organized, well-educated, and have one of the most modern political operations in the state,” Sweeney said. “And believe me, you feel it. You really do feel it.”
Gordon A. MacInnes, a former legislator and one-time assistant commissioner of the Department of Education, said the organization has long been omnipresent in Trenton.
“I sat on the education committee for years, and you could be absolutely dead certain that anytime the education committee met, there would be two or three NJEA officials there ready to testify,” he said. “Most senators didn’t care about the bills. The question was, ÔWhere’s the NJEA on this?’ Once they knew that, they were OK.”
NJEA spokesman Stephen Wollmer acknowledged the widely held view of the organization as an 800-pound gorilla, and made no apologies for its role in Trenton.
“Anything that flows to education is decided by politicians. Those decisions are made every day and, of course, that’s what people want us to focus on,” he said. “We always say we’ll get out of politics when politicians get out of education.”
Politics, he explained, comes down to making one’s feelings known, and it’s not enough to send a letter or e-mail to a legislator’s office.
Former Republican State Chairman Tom Wilson, an adviser to Christie’s campaign, is critical of the NJEA, but there is a hint of reluctant admiration in his voice. “It’s a big cat,” he said. “Most legislators think it’s better to cross the street to avoid it, rather than risk having it take a swipe at you.”
Wilson added that it was not by coincidence that the NJEA had the second-largest building on West State Street in Trenton, after the Statehouse, and the intimidation factor was high.
“Politicians always have to have one eye on their re-election prospects, and with the organizational might that this group has, you have to weigh the consequences in opposing them,” he said.
It is a union not only with money but with an army of people to bring to battle whenever needed, noted state Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, R-Monmouth.
“They are at their game full time. They have a tremendous sense of public affairs,” he said.
Sweeney may not agree with the NJEA’s positions but noted the organization is very effective. “They have become a very strong advocate for their membership. No one is going to deny that,” he said.
In his growing criticism of the organization, the governor has used some of the NJEA’s salary numbers to portray the union as a root of the state’s problems. But a survey of salaries of other public employee unions showed the NJEA was not alone in paying out big salaries to top officers and staff.
NJEA’s salaries and expenditures are not that different from the United Federation of Teachers in New York, which pays its president more than $268,990. According to the reports filed by the UFT, the salaries of many of its top officers range well over $100,000. New York teachers also pay more in dues to their union Ð $1,153 a year.
Still, several major public employee unions in New Jersey paid their executives less. For example, when Carla Katz was president of the Communications Workers of America, she was paid $115,564 plus $10,200 in allowances. Sherryl Gordon, executive director of the leadership council of the state’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, receives $158,242, according to AFSCME filings with the Department of Labor. And the Service Employees International Union says it pays David McCann, the state council director, $112,681.
The president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which has 191,000 members, is paid $181,240. Its executive director receives $154,512, according to its tax filings.
A more detailed accounting of NJEA spending is hard to pin down. Unlike most unions, the NJEA actually is a state association and not required to file annual expense reports with the U.S. Labor Department, say federal officials. Wollmer has rejected calls by Christie for the association to open its books, saying it is not public and it files all required financial disclosures. He did, however, provide current salary numbers when requested.
Wollmer added that the governor was being selective with his facts. He said Giordano’s salary is not the figure reported on the association’s 2007 tax form. When Wollmer took on the job of executive director in 2007, he was paid $270,000 but also was owed unused compensatory time and deferred pay under his previous contract. He will receive $300,000 this year, not including benefits.
“I don’t think our management is overpaid,” Wollmer said. “It’s a 24/7 job. There are meetings every night. It’s incessant. I can make the case that Vince is underpaid.”
Christie, he said, is simply trying to hide the fact that he’s cutting education deeply, by targeting the union as the bad guy, despite the fact that teachers have agreed to pension and health benefit charges that have led to hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings.
“Chris Christie sees things in an adversarial way. He needs to learn the act of governing,” Wollmer said.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the governor did nothing to suggest there would be any warming of relations anytime soon.
“Until the NJEA steps up to the plate to share in the sacrifice that every other New Jerseyan is engaged in, until it stops sacrificing its members’ jobs for its own self-interest and preservation, and until it stops paying half-million-dollar salaries to State Street employees while programs and jobs are being cut, it’s hard to imagine what we would have to discuss with them,” Michael Drewniak said.
©2010 Gloucester County Times
© 2010 NJ.com All Rights Reserved.