SOMEA Explains 'Work to Rule' Actions
More than money and benefits, union members want respect, says a rep.
Early last week, teachers in the South Orange-Maplewood Education Association — or SOMEA — began "working to rule" or "working to contract," meaning they will work only within the specific mandates of their former contract.
Work to rule actions have included teachers working the length of their shifts and no longer — affecting some after-school club activities, according to parents — as well as the removal of student work on bulletin boards outside of classrooms. Teachers have held peaceful protests outside of the last three Board of Education meetings as well as outside of South Orange Middle School on Friday, March 18 and Marshall School on Monday, March 21.
The teachers in the South Orange-Maplewood School District have been working without a contract since July 2009 (the last contract expired on June 30, 2009). Last month, the Board of Education and SOMEA declared that they were at an impasse and were requesting mediation from the state. However, at the March 21 Board meeting, Board member Richard Laine said that the Board and SOMEA had sat down on March 17 and had a "good conversation."
Both representatives of SOMEA and the Board of Education have said that they cannot comment on what the sticking points are in union negotiations, due to a confidentiality requirement.
Nonetheless, "work to rule" started early last week and has elicited strong responses from parents in the district.
Asked to comment on "work to rule," SOMEA representative Hannah Edelman said, "Because we're on the negotiating team [referring to herself and union leader Paula Bethea], we really can't respond to any of the actions."
However, Edelman said, Marty Weber could answer questions about "work to rule" on behalf of SOMEA. Weber said he is in charge of the Action Committee of SOMEA, but is not at the contract negotiating table.
Weber explained, "'Work to contract' means any employee in a contract has certain times they are supposed to be working. 'Work to rule' means you go in 5 minutes before and leave at the end of the shift."
"We're not breaking any rules."
Despite "work to rule," Weber assured Patch, "We are just as dedicated as we were last week. We want to be treated fairly and with the same respect as everyone else."
Weber explained that, although he doesn't know the sticking points of the contract, teachers see that "the administrators were able to settle their contract very quickly," while teachers have remained without a contract for almost two years.
Information available through the school district business office confirms that in 2009-2010, teachers (other than those at the top of the pay guide) did receive a step increase at a total cost of 2.8%. However, teachers salaries are frozen for 2010-11 and teachers have been paying more into their benefits. In addition, teachers do not have a negotiated merit bonus as the administrators do (merit bonuses were negotiated as part of the ASCA contract, although administrators took a salary freeze last year).
Weber said that the demonstration at Marshall, a kindergarten through second grade school, on Monday morning was organized "because of a staff member being reprimanded" by an administrator. Said Weber, his understanding was that the reprimand "involved bulletin boards and maybe they were explained to children."
Weber assured Patch that many after-school activities — such as school plays and end-of-year performances — would not be impacted. He explained that many of these positions involving after-school moderators, especially in the middle schools and high schools, are negotiated or paid by stipend.
"But we're just not volunteering that's all. We go in as a group in the morning. If someone's in charge of a play, they stay."
"We haven't taken anything off bulletin boards in a classroom. That would be horrible." He added, "We love our kids. We're teachers. We spend a lot of time with the kids."
"We should be trusted, respected," added Weber. "The governor is making what we do, what we make, almost a detriment."
Weber said that teachers wanted to see more support from the Board on the state level: "I've never heard any Board of Education member say the governor is unfair to our teachers. I have not seen any statement from the Board to our governor."
Response from school district leadership — as well as parents — to the work to rule actions has been strong.
Superintendent Brian Osborne made this statement at the March 21 Board of Education meeting: “While contract talks continue, I expect from all staff continued professionalism and dedication to our mission of preparing every student to be ready for college or a highly-skilled career. I want to thank all those whose commitment to meeting our kids’ needs is unwavering. I also need to reiterate that children should not be used to further adult interests. In these times when educators are too often criticized, it is my expectation that no one would take any action that might reflect negatively on our truly outstanding and dedicated teaching staff.”
Last week, Board of Education President Mark Gleason told Patch, “We are starting to hear sporadic reports of teachers making references to the contract negotiations in classes, even in those of our youngest students. It is at all times inappropriate for teachers to make statements to students that are in truth meant for their parents and which make the students pawns in the negotiations process.”
Parents have organized to voice their discomfort with work to rule actions. More than 150 have signed a letter that was read at the Board of Education meeting on Monday night. The letter stated that, although the parents recognized that teachers had been working without a contract for more than two years, "that stress is starting to spill over into the classrooms in ways that are unacceptable." The letter continued, "Job actions such as removing children’s work from bulletin boards and cancelling clubs are negatively impacting our children. More disturbing, these actions are turning our children into pawns in negotiations that should be between adults. We understand and share our teachers’ frustration at still not having a contract, but urge our teachers and the SOMEA leadership to focus job actions on adult matters, not on targeting students."
An Op-Ed penned by a parent and published on Patch has elicited numerous comments from parents, both critical and supportive of the teachers union by turns.
At the Feb. 16 Board of Education meeting, a second grade teacher from Marshall School acknowledged the contract negotiations are "a hard process. And from tonight's meeting we know there is no money." But she said that members of the administration are getting salary adjustments and merit pay and are "given more resources to do their jobs." However, the teacher did not blame the administration for the budget impasse.
Not for attribution, other teachers have spoken to Patch about frustration with the administration which they feel is partial to administrators over teachers. Others have expressed discomfort with or ambivalence toward work to rule actions. None knew or could say why they did not have a contract nor which side was responsible for the protracted negotations.
However, all were desirous to have a new contract and to continue to focus their efforts in the classroom.