The billboards are battling it out in Newark.
First came the Newark Teachers Union’s looming signs. “Help wanted,” they cry out in big, bold letters. “Stop the killings in Newark now!”
About five weeks after the late-January debut of the union’s media campaign in the New Jersey city, up popped billboards that for all the world look like rivals. “Newark Teachers Union,” they shout. “Protecting Bad Teachers, Discouraging Good Teachers, and Failing Our Kids.”
The latest messages, which like those of the teachers’ union appear on a half-dozen billboards around town and on mass-transit vehicles, also announce a new Web site, ProtectingBadTeachers.com. They are the work of the year-old Center for Union Facts, a free-market-oriented advocacy group in Washington focused on union abuses. Newark is but the launching site for the group’s first salvo against teachers’ unions.
Joseph Del Grosso, the president of the 5,400-member American Federation of Teachers affiliate, said he came up with the idea for his signs as he reflected on the 106 murders in Newark last year, a 15-year high, and the 40th anniversary this summer of the 1967 riots that devastated the city. The “help wanted” message signals the union doesn’t have all the answers, he said, and wants to work with others.
“If we are really trying to make a difference in the lives of children, there are some things we should be involved in,” said Mr. Del Grosso, a former elementary school teacher. “We need to change the attitude of violence that is persistent in our city. It is very difficult to promote education when the very students you are teaching are traumatized.”
Motives in Question
Mr. Del Grosso said that the union had no political motive, and that the campaign would eventually call on teachers to be part of the solution.
Others note, though, that the union is in contract negotiations with the 42,000-student district, and that Mayor Cory A. Booker, a Democrat who was elected last spring, supports a school voucher bill now before the state legislature. The mayor, a rising political star, made crime reduction a centerpiece of his campaign.
Mr. Del Grosso said that after the union’s billboards went up, Mayor Booker’s staff expressed displeasure. Mr. Booker’s office did not return phone calls, but the mayor has told local news media that he is open to any help in fighting crime.
Meanwhile, Rick Berman, who heads the Center for Union Facts as well as several other nonprofits that are linked to causes he has served as a Washington lobbyist, said his media campaign is unrelated to the union’s.
“This is about the teachers’ union and where we find them dysfunctional,” Mr. Berman said.
He added that the advertising in Newark is the start of a nationwide campaign lambasting teachers’ unions for what the center contends is their obstruction of education reform.
The center’s spokeswoman, Sarah Longwell, said Newark was chosen for the kickoff because its district had the worst results of “school systems of a similar stripe.” The Newark effort will have a phase beyond the billboards, bus signs, and newspaper advertisement that have been seen so far, though the center is keeping its plans quiet “to get a jump on the union,” according to Ms. Longwell.
She would not reveal the center’s sources of support, beyond saying that it has received money from foundations, businesses, union members, and the general public.
The president of the teachers’ union said he doubted the center’s claim that their billboards had no relationship to his own. Said Mr. Del Grosso, “I believe it is a direct assault of the mayor and the voucher group E3,” which stands for Excellent Education for Everyone.
A version of this article appeared in the March 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Union and Anti-Union Group Wage Billboard Campaigns in Newark