It was a roll call unlike any the school community had ever seen. In alphabetical order, teachers and secretaries on strike in a New Jersey district were summoned to court and given a choice of returning to work or going to jail. In all, 228 had been put behind bars by the end of last week, when union leaders called off the strike, triggering the workers’ release.
The drama that unfolded in Middletown Township was part of a continuing contract dispute between district and union leaders, and is believed to mark the first time anywhere in nearly 20 years that so many rank-and-file teachers have been locked up for taking part in a job action.
Prompted by a judge’s order to end the work stoppage called by the 1,000-member Middletown Township Education Association, the jailings led to a week of round-the-clock negotiations, local protests joined by national union leaders, and death threats against the township’s school board. Said school board President Patricia Walsh last week: “I did not picture that we would be at the point we are at.”
The conflict between teachers and officials of the 10,500-student district is the latest blow in recent months for Middletown, a community near the bay wedged between central New Jersey and New York City. About three dozen area residents were killed in the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center. And a number of major local employers have seen layoffs, including the giant Lucent Technologies, which is based nearby.
Each side in the labor dispute blames the other for the jailings. Middletown teachers began their strike Nov. 29, and continued the walkout for six more days, even after the school board succeeded in getting a ruling from state Superior Court Judge Clarkson S. Fisher that the educators had to go back to work.
New Jersey law does not explicitly forbid strikes by public employees, but teachers there can be held in contempt for disobeying back-to- work orders. Union officials say the last time that happened in the state was in 1982, when a strike in Teaneck led to the unusual step of incarcerating more than 150 staff members inside a local school during the daytime hours.
The Middletown school board “didn’t want a settlement; they wanted their people in jail,” charged Karen Joseph, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state counterpart of the local union. “Quite candidly, this is a vindictive board of education.”
But district leaders maintained that the teachers had decided their own fates. Each teacher was brought before the judge and asked whether he or she intended to continue striking. Most who said yes were placed in custody in the Monmouth County jail. Some were excused for family or medical reasons. And the district says more than 100 broke ranks with the union and reported to work.
“I know they have said we labeled them as criminals, but they are choosing to violate the judge’s order and to violate the law,” Ms. Walsh said. “And no person is above the law.”
While waiting for the names to be called, teachers held protests and vigils outside the Hall of Records in Freehold, where the proceedings took place.
Last week, National Education Association President Bob Chase joined the gathering and delivered a speech in which he addressed district leaders and Judge Fisher, scolding repeatedly: “Shame on you.”
Meanwhile, a caller left a message on the school board’s district answering machine threatening to kill a board member, said Britt Raynor, who sits on the panel.
Middletown has a history of labor strife in its schools. An impasse in contract talks three years ago led to a weeklong strike by the teachers’ union that ended after the board secured a back-to-work order, also by Judge Fisher.
The current dispute centers on a proposal to increase the amount employees contribute for their medical insurance. The plan is expected to save the district $200,000 in the first year. Workers’ premiums would rise in the future as coverage costs increased.
“It’s very simple: These costs are skyrocketing,” Mr. Raynor said. “They are getting out of sight, and like private enterprise around the country, we need some help.”
Although teachers agreed to return to work starting Dec. 10, the two sides had yet to settle a contract late last week. Instead, they signed off on a deal to continue negotiations with a court- appointed mediator.
“There was really no need to go through the events of this week to arrive at the same place that we are today,” Ms. Walsh said.
Gauging community reaction to the strike and the resultant jailings of teachers has been difficult. Some parents joined educators in their protests, while others said the recent economic downturn affecting many Middletown families had hardened their attitudes about the job action.
A former PTA president, Eileen Gannon, said she had sympathized with the union members during the last strike, but was frustrated with them now.
“It’s a painful situation that they have put us in,” she said. “I have a 1st grader who says, ‘Mommy, what if my teacher goes to jail?’ A child thinks that her teacher is everything. And to a 7-year-old, jail is a bad place, so if her teacher goes to jail, what does that mean?”
A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as End of Strike Opens Jail Cells For N.J. Teachers