Teachers union gives a lesson in political power

Editorial by the Press of Atlantic City Editorial Board

11/13/15

The state's big teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, gave a memorable lesson to residents of the region in the just-concluded election: It's got money, it's extremely partisan and it's adept at using the political process to attain its goals.

In this particular case, the primary goal is laudable — getting state government to make the payments for public-worker pensions.

The future cost of the pensions was already reduced significantly under the 2010 bipartisan reform, which also included a supposedly ironclad agreement to start making the payments in full.

With an unfunded pension liability north of $84 billion and rising, New Jersey is in a fiscal hole and needs to quit digging.

Since it was Gov. Chris Christie who reduced the pension payment to balance his budget, and Republicans in the Legislature who refused to override his poor choice, the NJEA went all in for Democrats in the election.

The political arm of the teachers union gave a District of Columbia super political action committee $3.5 million, which was plowed into television and direct-mail marketing for Democrats. Almost $3 million of it was spent on the competitive 1st and 2nd District Assembly races, which was nearly as much as the total spending by the Democratic and Republican campaigns themselves (as of Oct. 23 election reports).

In the 1st District, representing Cape May County and parts of Atlantic and Cumberland, a two-term Republican incumbent was upset by a Democrat who started the race with perhaps the lowest name recognition of any Assembly candidate in the state.

The NJEA endorsed 57 Assembly candidates statewide, all of them Democrats. The Democrats, who already have a comfortable majority in the Assembly, picked up at least three seats in the election.

The teachers union was quick to crow about the effectiveness of its political power, but instead of pointing to its outsized political spending, it credited its "unprecedented get-out the-vote effort" for its "big victory."

This state legislative election was just the sort the teachers know how to influence. With Assembly races topping the tickets, a very low voter turnout was assured. Three-quarters of New Jersey residents polled in early October by Rutgers-Eagleton said they weren't even aware there would be an election.

That made it like some school board elections whose arrangement assures a minimum voter turnout. That magnifies the power of the teachers union's 20,000 members to influence who wins by providing election-day workers and votes.

American politics is full of organizations pursuing their narrow self-interest. That's not a problem, just what people do — work together to help themselves. It's the job of elected leaders to meld the interests of all citizens, in groups or not, into good governance.

It is a problem, though, if the self interested groups aren't competing fairly for political power, playing by the same rules on a more or less level field. That is the case with the teachers union.

Putting a lot of money into the local Assembly races was fine, since everyone was free to spend as much as they wanted in support of the candidates of their choosing. The diminishing return on additional political marketing also blunts the benefit to those who have more and spend more money on it.

But the union alone has a strong campaign advantage: Schools frequently close to give teachers Election Day off, usually thanks to closely allied officials in government. That frees them to mobilize the vote for candidates they support.

That is simply not fair or wise in a democracy. One group, and one group alone, can't be given a significantly greater opportunity to influence election outcomes.

The solution is pretty straightforward: Make Election Day a holiday for all New Jersey residents, or bar government workers from taking the day off (without medical confirmation of illness).

That would also go a long way toward assuring New Jersey residents that Democrats are giving balanced consideration to the interests of everyone.

« Back to List