Families & the Community

Bad Blood

By Bess Keller — October 01, 2004 11 min read
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After two bitter strikes in three years, the community of Middletown, N.J., hopes to purge the venom from its school system.

It wasn’t the longest strike in the history of U.S. teacher labor unrest. But it may be among the most infamous.

Teachers here walked out on a Friday in late November 2001, and were back in the classroom just over a week later. In between, 228 members of the Middletown Township Education Association were jailed for their action, creating indelible pictures flashed worldwide of suburban teachers in handcuffs, one in a “God Bless America” baseball cap raising the cuffs overhead to make a visible thumbs-up sign.

And this wasn’t just any American community at any time. Less than three months earlier, Middletown had lost 33 of its residents in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, across the bay separating New Jersey from Manhattan, the greatest toll outside New York City. Then, the town rallied around its grieving families. With the strike, the place seemed bathed in venom.

The event cast into starkest relief many of the reasons teachers’ strikes are a feared feature of the education landscape: the risk of harming the long-term relationships that schools need to be stable, without achieving the goals sought by the union.

“A good strike is one in which people are able to let go and move on without creating conditions that will just lead to another strike,” says Michael A. Leeds, a labor expert in the business school at Temple University in Philadelphia.

If that yardstick is applied to the 2001 strike here, the measurement is incomplete. Yet the lessons so far are important because Middletown tumbled deeply into the pitfalls that open for many communities.

The question of whether the community can find labor peace takes on a new sense of urgency because teachers are in the final year of the four-year contract they agreed to eight months after union leaders called off the strike and went to arbitration. Negotiations—which could start this fall, earlier than usual—loom over the community.

To Heal

The day-to-day challenge of putting the 10,500-student Middletown district onto a more even keel has largely been shouldered by its new superintendent, David W. Witmer. He replaced Jack DeTalvo, who quit a few months after the strike, saying it was too hard to get anything done in Middletown.

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“The main thing the board wanted me to do was to heal the district, to try to put it back together,” says Witmer. “I think we’ve been very successful.”

Witmer, 66, says he saw the job as the crown on a career that has included leading smaller districts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He wants to leave the place better than he found it.

To that end, Witmer has made changes big and small. He sends personally signed birthday cards to every teacher. He writes a regular newsletter to the community and has convened the nine-member elected school board twice, with a facilitator, to set goals for the year.

Without goals, he says, it is too easy to get distracted—and Middletown is a distracting place. He says he had never been in a district where the public scrutiny—and criticism—have been greater.

“It seems to be a form of art, a form of pleasure,” he sighs.

In its most pernicious guise, that tendency amounts to the “confrontational culture” that a court-appointed special mediator found to be a root cause of the district’s troubles. “There is a districtwide confrontational culture that finds its most public manifestation in the form of personal animosity between the board and association leaders,” Ronald J. Riccio wrote in a report two months after the strike.

Identified by Riccio as the other root cause: ineffective school board and teachers’ union leaders.

Changes within those realms, over which the superintendent has no control, may have helped. Almost all the nine board members who held office during the 2001 strike have departed, some defeated at the polls and some choosing not to run again. And at the MTEA, new people fill the posts of first vice president and grievance-committee chair, Witmer notes.

What goes unsaid is that the strike’s most controversial figure, MTEA President Diane K. Swaim, did not step down. Riccio recommended that Swaim, whom he called “contentious,” do so along with board members.

In many ways, Swaim is no surprise in a state known for its powerful unions. The New Jersey Education Association, the MTEA’s parent and an affiliate of the nation’s largest union, the National Education Association, fosters activists ready to play hardball in defense of hard-won contract language.

Even so, Swaim, 55, stands out as smart, tenacious, and, some say, intimidating. The 8th grade social studies teacher has held the president’s job since 1983, unusual longevity for the NEA.

“Members are free to run against me if they think they could or would do a better job,” she says. “If that doesn’t happen, I’m willing to continue as long as members want to have me do it.”

The union’s new first vice president, Ray McLoughlin, concedes that some of its confrontational tactics have backfired. Take the billboard the union paid for on Route 36 back in 1998. Against a chartreuse background, it bid readers thinking of moving to Middletown to “Think twice.” And McLoughlin says he knows Swaim can be unnecessarily “sharp-tongued.”

Nevertheless, both union leaders trace the start of the extraordinary conflict to a contingent unofficially allied with the town’s Republicans that began to dominate the school board in the early ’90s. The hand of those fighting rising property taxes and eager to rein in spending was strengthened, according to Swaim, by the growing number of well-paid executives and middle managers settling along the winding roads and suburban cul-de-sacs of the area.

“In Middletown, most residents are middle-management-level people, who believe that working people need to be kept in their place,” Swaim asserts.

The board chose not to budget the maximum tax increases allowed by the state, and for several years, voters rejected the budgets that came before them—which gave the GOP-ruled town council the right to cut the spending plans. “But what really got everybody going,” McLoughlin says, “was the tremendous bashing of teachers.”

First Strike

All this came to a head in 1998 as the union, which had been working under an expired contract for two years, tried to stave off teacher contributions to health-care premiums and the loss of joint-planning time at the middle school level. Teachers walked out the first four days of the school year, returning when a state judge ordered them back to work.

When mediation failed, the board was allowed, under the law that then prevailed, to impose its last best offer. Many teachers were furious.

“The aftermath of the first strike was the second strike,” Swaim concludes.

Patricia Walsh, who was elected to the school board in 1996 along with others who thought the schools were underfunded, tells a somewhat different story. She agrees that the board treated the people who came before it highhandedly. But Walsh says concern over education spending predates the tax conservatives, going back to financial mismanagement of the district in 1979.

A court-appointed mediator found a culture of confrontation between school board and teachers' union leaders at the root of the district's woes.

It is unreasonable, she argues, to think that people will readily embrace higher and higher taxes when the district’s teachers are paid on a par with others in Monmouth County. And being on the board made Walsh aware of the not-always-healthy power the union had accrued over the years that showed up in a too lengthy and overly detailed contract, she says.

Still, Walsh says a majority of board members in 2001, herself included, would never have supported an imposed contract—yet Swaim seemed stuck on that possibility.

“The board is almost Diane’s creation,” Walsh muses. “We learned from her that we had to hold our ground.”

With both sides refusing to budge, negotiations reached an impasse in the summer of 2001. A strike planned for Sept. 12 was called off after the terrorist attacks the preceding day. But on Nov. 29, the teachers walked out.

Still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as layoffs at nearby telecommunications giant Lucent Technologies and elsewhere, many parents reacted to the strike with disbelief or anger.

Teachers had their own painful feelings, not only because many felt betrayed by parents’ lack of support for their walkout, but also because years of labor unrest had apparently tarnished their collective reputation.

“While … parents were supportive of me personally,” one former Middletown teacher wrote recently to an online bulletin board, “they had an open disapproval of teachers which came through in the comments of their sons and daughters.”

A few dozen teachers reported for work, according to the district, but most disobeyed the court injunction ordering them back. In the end, 228 drew jail time—the penalty requested by the school board’s lawyer. Some teachers spent as long as five days in jail, short on privacy, long on anger.

When the alternative was to leave teachers incarcerated over the weekend, union leaders called off the strike. But even with recommendations from the mediator, it took another eight months to finish negotiating a contract. The pact more or less split the difference between the board and the union on salaries and teacher payments for health insurance, the two ostensible sticking points at the time of the strike.

The union did seem to make some public-policy gains from the strife—or from the town’s sober reflection on it. At their next opportunity, Middletown voters approved the board’s budget with about double the usual turnout—22 percent of the electorate. Two years later, the 2004 election brought to the board three parent leaders generally considered advocates of more spending on education.

In addition, an undeniable payoff for teachers statewide came last year when New Jersey enacted legislation shorthanded as “the Middletown law.” Lawmakers removed school boards’ right to impose a contract, and instead beefed up requirements for nonbinding arbitration.


Teachers generally think of the strike’s personal toll, not its political impact.

Linda Ensor, who was teaching at Middletown High School North when the strike was called, says she went to jail partly on the advice of an administrator in her school. She says the administrator warned her that if she didn’t stick with the other teachers, her professional relationships would suffer.

That wasn’t all, Ensor found out. In the aftermath of the strike, friendships between teachers broke up, and faculty members left. Weary of parents’ generalized anger or afraid of further labor unrest, as many as 100 out of Middletown’s 950 teachers had left by the end of the summer following the strike.

Some departures were the result of normal retirements, but in other cases, teachers cashed out earlier than they had planned or simply sought greener pastures. At Middletown High School North, where Ensor had taught English for seven years after a career as a college financial-aid officer, nearly half the math department got out—one teacher before the year was up.

“I started thinking maybe I didn’t want to go back,” she recalls. “I started looking around.” Eventually, she took a job at nearby Shore Regional High School, one of the three she was offered.

“The attitude toward teachers is radically different” in her new school community of West Long Branch, N.J., Ensor reports. “I’ve been treated with tremendous respect.”

As for the teachers who stayed in Middletown, “there are those who have put [the strike] behind them, and for some, it is still right under the skin,’’ observes Jane Austen, a longtime administrator, who recently served as an interim principal at an elementary school.

The current contract will expire soon, but this time, parents, teachers, and district officials have taken steps aimed at reducing hostilities.

Strike repercussions played out much more quickly for most students. In the immediate aftermath, a few teachers were too dejected or distracted to do much teaching, while the departure of others delayed or disrupted classes. Seniors that year had a harder time getting college recommendations—a big deal in a district where the bast majority of graduates go on to college.

“My daughter came home complaining that one of the teachers was mean to the kids,” says a mother of a then-middle schooler, who does not want to be identified because of lingering bad feelings about that time.

But when she contends that the schools are “still not back to normal,” she seems to be referring to conditions way beyond classroom routines and teacher-student interactions.

“A lot of us moved to Middletown for the school system, and now look at it,” she exclaims, pointing to the latest ranking of state high schools in New Jersey Monthly magazine, which includes neither of the two Middletown high schools in the top 75. “I think the strike gave Middletown a black eye.”

The mayor of the township disagrees. “The first thing we say is, it has a great school system—and it does,” says Joan A. Smith.

Parent leaders have been working on making sure that communication between teachers and parents never again reaches the nadir of 2001.

In the school year after the walkout, Jeanine Horowitz, a co-president of the Parent-Faculty Association at Middletown High School South, helped start regular after-school coffee gatherings where teachers and parents can speak their minds. “We were asking teachers, ‘What can we do for you?’ ”

She is somewhat baffled by anyone’s refusal to follow a court order, but knows there is another point of view. “I’ve spoken to many friends who are teachers, and they understand what our teachers did,” Horowitz says.

This time around, she believes, negotiations will go differently.

Indeed, the board and the union recently shared the cost of putting cardiac defibrillators in every school building. And board members are having dinner with union leaders.

Still, board member Walsh and union President Swaim are cautious while pointing to improvements in the labor climate. They note that new limitations on school budget increases enacted by the legislature this year restrict the board’s financial leeway even further than in the past. And health-care costs continue to soar.

Nonetheless, says Swaim, “I’m hoping for a settlement by New Year’s Day. … It can be done.”


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