Path To Progress or Poverty?
In this episode Heather talks to Theresa Zimmerman Fuller and Adam Sheridan from NJ 21 United about the recent Sweeney backed Path To Progress Commission. Is this a cure all as Sweeney says or is it just more of the same attacks on public workers and unions we have come to expect from Steve Sweeney and the Norcross Dems? Theresa and Adam are dedicated educators and explain the devastating ramifications this could have on workers. Examples include drastic cuts to pensions, a possible thousands of dollars cuts in compensations, and a violation of the public trust in regards to what we promised our professional educators. All in the name of austerity and lowering taxes on millionaires. To this reporter Sweeney seems to be leading us on the path to bullshit.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 0:00
And that was one of the things you know, for me that was so outrageous. I have you know, I have one of my neighbors is a corrections officer. And corrections officers, they are not being, you know, beat up on police officers, firefighters, none of the other state employees are targeted. We’re always the ones that are that are targeted. So for me that was one of the things that was quite alarming about the path to progress. Specifically, you know, went after teachers, specifically NJEA employees
Heather Warburton 0:33
This is Wine, Women, and Revolution with your host Heather Warburton coming at you here on New Jersey Revolution Radio.
Hi and welcome to Wine, Women, and Revolution. I’m your host Heather Warburton coming at you here on New Jersey Revolution Radio. You can find us online at the www.njrevolutionradio.com. Get us where all you get your podcasts from and follow us on all the social medias. Tonight we’re talking about something we never talk about here on New Jersey Revolution Radio. And that’s why Steve Sweeney is an asshole. He’s been attacking public workers pretty much his entire career. He’s been union busting, even though he claims to be a union guy. And he’s just not been a friend to workers for as long as I think I’ve known about him. So tonight I have two amazing educators with me here tonight Theresa Zimmerman Fuller, welcome to the show.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 1:38
Thanks for having me.
Heather Warburton 1:40
And Adam Sheridan. If you followed us with our battle with the Nazis in Pittman, you may have met Adam back then. I think he was on the live stream a little bit. And generally he was an awesome comrade and help with chasing the Nazis out of Pittman. But I haven’t actually had him on my show yet. Welcome to the show tonight, Adam.
Adam Sheridan 2:07
Sure NJ 21 United is a partnership between public school employees. So teachers, but also ESPs, you know, your bus drivers, cafeteria workers, classroom aids and all that, and community members. It’s specifically designed to not just be teachers, but to be educators and the public, people that care about education and what happens to children and in school and outside of school. We stand for not just democratic unionism, and rank and file led organizing, but also for social justice in our communities we feel like our communities tend to stand up for teachers and educators and we feel like we can reciprocate that right back at them.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 2:51
Yeah, I think that a lot of times our members get frustrated because they don’t really know how to interact and what they can do. And you know, for this organization, it’s been a way for a lot of members to see, you know, alternate ways that they can get involved and use kind of some of the organizing methods that we use within their own locals and then across the state to get things done that they want done for our association.
Heather Warburton 3:21
And how long has this organization going for?
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 3:25
Um, I think Adam and I both kind of joined right around the same time. Right, Adam? So we both have been since the spring.
Adam Sheridan 3:33
Yeah, I think the official launch is March and then I think we came on late March, early April, so about it getting close to a year now.
Heather Warburton 3:41
Okay, so it’s not a super long time. I didn’t know if it started because the first time I really noticed as not being an educator myself. Some of the attacks on educators was under the Chris Christie administration, who all of a sudden was like, somehow teachers with the bad guys even though historically you know, we all know teachers are very under paid, they’re undervalued, they already don’t get the recognition they deserve. And then Sweeney sort of started portraying them as the villains of the story. And then I would say Sweeney was from the beginning on board with that narrative of portraying schools as underperforming when really they’re performing fairly well. New Jersey schools have been in the top tier of performance for some time.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 4:24
We’re number one right now. So I would agree with you. I think that for a lot of our members, they get really frustrated because while we’re number one in the state and you know, we go above and beyond all the time, we’re often portrayed as being the villains like you said. Of you know, why its so expensive to live in New Jersey like we are, you know, we’re the reason why taxes are so high. But taxpayers and citizens of New Jersey needs to realize that the reason why that we are number one in the state is because tax money that goes in, because of the hard work that we do. So that’s kind of one of the things that we’re trying to turn around. And it’s one of the reasons why we try to get as many community allies as possible because, you know, many, some of our community allies do understand that.
Heather Warburton 5:14
Yeah, and I wasn’t really aware until Sweeney started this whole path to progress initiative, that teachers are, I guess, the only thing that actually cost money in the state of New Jersey. Everything else is totally free. Teachers are the only thing that our budgets going to, according to this path to progress. Right.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 5:31
And, and that was one of the things you know, for me, that was so outrageous, I have, you know, I have one of my neighbors is a corrections officer. And corrections officers. They’re not being you know, beat up on. Police officers, firefighters, none of the other state employees are targeted. We’re always the ones that are targeted. So for me, that was one of the one of the things that was quite alarming about the path to progress, but it specifically you know, went after teachers and NJEA employees because there are other teacher associations in the state.
Heather Warburton 6:06
All right, so let’s go into a little bit of the history of Sweeney’s relationship with teachers and what path to progress is. What this thing he’s pushing? Why is he pushing it and what would be the real ramifications if he got what he wanted?
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 6:23
So I would say for me, I became aware of it about about a year ago, um, he started kind of shopping around the state at these town halls, North Jersey, central jersey, South Jersey, these town halls where he would show up and he and other legislators would talk about, you know, why this path of progress needed to occur. And at every single one, and we saw it on the news that every single one, you know, you had people showing up whether we’re CWA whether it was NJEA, or even just kind of local community members who were there to to ask questions, and to kind of to be able to discuss some of their concerns with him. That’s what a town hall is. And every single one, he talks over the audience, he refused to answer questions. And most of the audience left, you know, more outraged than they walked in the door. So, you know, that’s how for me, I became aware of it. I started going to the town halls. I saw how he responded to audience members, how he responded specifically to teachers and to CWA. And then, pretty much the very last Town Hall, which would have been late spring I want to say that the beginning of May, we had a town hall and he ended up really kind of getting booed off the stage, and he left and he introduced his package of 27 bills later that day.
Heather Warburton 7:53
Adam did you want to dive into a little bit of what the path to progress what these bills and measures are? You know, I know there’s attacking of pensions is one of his major things he likes to do.
Adam Sheridan 8:04
Yeah, path of progress is a suite of 27 laws. That Sweeney commissioned a panel which he called path of progress, and staffed it with a lot of experts and policy wonks. That were the idea was they were supposed to figure out how to fix New Jersey’s finances. And they came out with these 27 laws, not all of them are objectionable, some of them are fine. There’s several that are special education regulations that are pretty good to help special education children and their families access services more easily. So some of them are good. Some of them are sort of neutral. There’s a consolidation bill where small schools that were like K through eight would consolidate into regional districts. So instead of having a district at some towns just have, they don’t have a high school. They just have a K through eight school that they would join together with a larger High School District and create this like Regional District. Which would get rid of some administrators and things like that. And if done right, that could be fine and could save some people some money. But then the ones that we object to. There are basically three bills that are real problem. One is it would take college like community college professors, it would take them and downgrade their health insurance. A second one would say currently teachers have what are called Platinum Plus health plans, which cover 95% of essential health services as defined by the ACA. He wants to make it a law that no district, even if they want to, no district can offer any plan that covers more than 80% of essential health services. And those are called gold plans. And along with those come much higher out of pocket maximums. So it’s essentially a pay cut. For people who use their health care whose families use a lot of health care these are pay cuts as much as 10 to $15,000 potentially. And then the other bill is New Jersey’s pension has been underfunded for years. Because back in the 90s, New Jersey stopped paying, they decided that the pension was over funded. And so they just stopped paying into it and Governor Whitman used that to cut taxes, particularly on wealthy and on corporations. She kept doing this it was known at the time that this was a terrible idea, but she kept doing it. And then successive governors continued the underfunding, continued raiding the pension fund to lower taxes. Then the great recession hit and they just stopped paying completely. They paid in zero dollars for about five years. And this has caused a huge underfunded pension to the tune of billions and billions of dollars. And Sweeney is plan to fix this is he’s going to create a new pension system. People who are five years of service or longer would get to keep their current pension. But people with less than five years of service would be moved into a much lower pension plan that’s more like a 401k there would be much less of a state contribution, and it would be much less generous at the end of their, their career. And the problem with this is that not only does this basically ask us to sell out our union family, you know, people who have been in for less than five years have been paying in for five years. And it sells them out. They’ve been essentially paying for nothing. But it doesn’t address the unfunded pension. It doesn’t… they’ll they’ll keep taking some money from new workers, but not enough. And they will still have to be adding assets and money to the pension fund, that I’m not sure where they’re going to come from. So we object also to that bill, because it sells out newer workers, younger workers, and probably wouldn’t fix the problem anyway.
Heather Warburton 11:43
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 11:43
And theres no language in that bill that requires them to pay into the pension at all. So they’re making all these fixes to save money, but in reality, there’s no guarantee in that bill, that they’re going to it’s going to require them to pay into the pension
Heather Warburton 11:58
So they can keep not funding the pensions. They’re not really preventing any sort of crisis at any point in time. They’re just hurting employees.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 12:06
Uh huh. And they’re, you know, we’ll continue to pay into it. We’re like we pay into our pension, every paycheck, it gets, it gets deducted from a paycheck. It’s getting sent to the state. And then there’s no guarantee at any point that I’m going to ever get my pension when I retire.
Heather Warburton 12:23
Right. And I think that’s kind of the agreement of what teachers agreed to. Teachers don’t make a huge salary. Teachers are not drawing giant salaries, but they’ve always been decent pension, decent health care was part of your compensation package you agreed to when signing up to be a teacher, like, I’m not going to get rich off this but I’m going to be taking care of and that just kind of breaks that public trust and confidence that teachers signed up for the this is what the teachers agreed to and now that’s just all being taken away from them. So it really is a violation of you know, an agreement that we made with teachers in New Jersey.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 13:03
Yeah. And I think that that was kind of that’s part of the the rhetoric that’s being sold by Sweeney that, you know, we’re asking for something that you know that we are’t due. We’re asking for this, you know, ridiculous health care plan. You know, when I started teaching, that was before chapter 78. I had never ever had health before health insurance before.
Heather Warburton 13:26
Did you have anything you wanted to say about that? You know, the breaking of the confidence what we have an agreement we made with teachers, you’re not asking for anything new, right? You’re just asking for what you agreed to when you became a teacher.
Adam Sheridan 13:38
Right? Yeah. And I think a lot of the reason teaching is a hard job. It’s not my only job. I used to be a computer tech and you get into teaching knowing that it’s hard because other teachers will tell you but you don’t really realize until you try to do it. How emotionally draining it is to teach kids every day. I teach in a title one Middle School, kid low income kids. It’s a 66% people of color population. So it’s a district where we have lots of, you know, the all the things that happen in America in New Jersey to low income people and people of color, all the the challenges that they face. You know, our test scores are always terrible, because tests, tests are racially biased, you know, biased by class and all those sorts of things. So it’s a hard job. And my wife has lupus. So she uses thousands of dollars in healthcare, and will for the rest of her life. And I know that, you know, some days are really hard. And when I think of the hard days like, Well, you know, my family’s taken care of, and even if this is a really difficult job to do, and I don’t always know how I’m going to make it until I’m 65. You know, I know that my family’s health is taken care of. So just the idea of them, just basically reneaging on that deal. Saying like, oh, we’re just kidding, that wasn’t real. It’s just offensive on on a, on a moral level to me.
Heather Warburton 15:07
Right. And teachers really do go above and beyond like, you know, you hear so much of teachers funding things out of their own pockets for their classrooms and really working above and beyond their contract that teachers go the extra mile for their kids because they care about things. And we as a society should care about teachers and take care of them.
Adam Sheridan 15:31
Yeah, I agree. It’s it’s a job that people give everything to. You don’t last this job if you if you don’t really, truly believe in it. I wanted to be a teacher because I felt like it was like a noble thing to do. If I was going to be spending my whole day away from my family, I at least wanted to do something that felt like it was worthwhile and it made a difference. So yeah, it’s a job that I think it draws. I mean, as a primarily female workforce, I think there is a culture of sort of giving until it hurts. Which is not healthy, in general and is reflective of sort of how our society treats women. But at the at the same time, there’s also a culture of teachers just do what needs to be done. And we care a lot about the kids that are in front of us, we spend more time with them than anyone other than their families and sometimes more than their families. So yeah, it definitely, that’s the kind of attitude that we all have about it.
Heather Warburton 16:24
Right. And that could go into all kinds of discussions about unpaid emotional labor, and how we, you know, capitalism is based off the exploitation of unpaid emotional labor. That’s kind of what keeps capitalism going in a lot of ways. But I’m not going to go off on that tangent tonight, we’re going to specifically try to keep focused on path to progress. So now we’re hearing about the path to progress commission that’s being established. would either one of you like to tell me a little bit about what that is and what the goals of this commission are supposed to be?
Adam Sheridan 16:56
So the path to progress commission, one of the recommendations of this original panel was that a permanent path of progress commission be created. And the idea was that they, I guess, they would just continually study these problems and continually offer their solutions, which are always cuts to working people. They’re always cuts that don’t affect any of the people that are recommending these things. And it’s particularly offensive at their town halls, they’ll claim because some of them are public workers as Rutgers professors, they’ll they’ll claim, like, some sort of solidarity with us. But you know, they have six figure salaries, and none of this applies to them. So that’s always going to be the answer that they come up with. So you know
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 17:39
Thats sort of Sweeney’s line isn’t it Adam that he is a union guy.
Adam Sheridan 17:43
Yeah. Union man,
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 17:45
Hysterical when he does union busting things.
Adam Sheridan 17:48
Yeah. So this commission is supposed to be a permanent commission. And the reason we don’t like it is because we feel like this is just a way to constantly shake us down. Anytime. Sweeney likes to start talking about path to progress. And talking about cuts whenever our union talks back. They don’t get along. They have been at odds since 2017, when njea tried to defeat him in a primary, which he won about 85. Sorry, not in the primary, in the general. And he won, I don’t know, by 85 to 15 or something like that. So there’s bad blood and there has been for a while. And whenever we talk back, path to progress starts coming back. So we feel like this commission, this permanent commission, is just a way to always have that threat his back pocket that. You know, if we talk back, we’re going to go back to talking about cuts. And it also gives him basically a free PR firm, you know, they can keep putting out these reports. They can keep saying like all our our teachers cost us another 6 billion this year or something like that. And he’s not offering us a seat at that table. He’s not giving us, you know, any of our union representation. We don’t get to be part of this conversation. It’s just a one way conversation where he dictates to us how we’re ruining the state this year.
Heather Warburton 18:59
Yeah, That was the question I was going to ask is who’s making up this commission? Is it all Sweeney? You know, underlings and people who are into the whole Sweeney Norcross, South Jersey dems machine.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 19:15
Yeah, most of that commission is appointed. And then, you know, many of the legislators that we, you know, thought were going to definitely vote no on that overwhelmingly voted yes. And they’re reporting back to our members, that, you know, they were under the impression that we would have a seat at that commission. And that’s just not true. According to the, you know, the wording of the legislation.
Heather Warburton 19:41
Can we call out some of the people who voted for this commission. in case people wanted to write to them and hold them accountable for their bad votes?
Adam Sheridan 19:51
Well, it passed 30 to one in the Senate, the only senator that did not vote for it was Senator Turner from ld 15. So If you’re listening to this, your senator probably voted for it. In the assembly there were only I think six that did not vote for it. There a couple of abstentions and then people basically most of them voted for it, including a lot of people that were endorsed in the last election by NJEA which is really puzzling
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 20:22
Too, the legislature legislators for me are people that, you know, I I canvassed for in the last election. They’re not from where I live, but they are from by the school for me where I teach. And you know, I’m really, I’m disappointed because instead of going with what the constituents wanted, they went with what their caucus said to do instead. Thats really disappointing for me, and I look forward to seeing them at our legislative dinners this spring because I don’t know how they can come back from that.
Heather Warburton 20:53
So what’s the legislative dinner they actually come and meet with your unions.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 20:57
Yeah, so in each county, we invite them to come out to a legislative dinner to talk about, you know, our policies, you know, different pieces of legislation that are that are up for a vote. Not many of them come. They’re all invited from the State Board of Ed down to, you know, local mayor’s, like everyone is invited to it. And usually we only get one or two if you get them.
Adam Sheridan 21:24
In Camden County, they don’t show up at all because they haven’t come in. They haven’t come since. I think the end of 2017 when they did the… Yeah, when they did the thing to Sweetie, that’s the last time they would show up now. They just across the board refused to even come
Heather Warburton 21:41
Well, Camden definitely has some issues. That’s kind of the seat of the South Jersey democrat machine and all of the damage it’s doing around the state. But specifically, Camden is kind of the home base of where Norcross is exploiting everyone. So what if people want to get involved and want to stand up for teachers because teachers, you can’t do this on your own, you need community support. If we really want to defeat Sweeney in every stupid douchebag thing he wants to do, then we need community support. So how do people get involved? How do they support teachers?
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 22:25
Well, we are looking for you know, additional community allies and nj 21 that’s something that we’re going to be you know, working more on as we move from the winter into the spring. Um, you know, you can reach out to us on our on any of our social medias, we are pretty active on Twitter and Facebook. We have a web page, they can reach out to us that way. They could call their legislators and say, you know, what is this, why are you doing this? This hurts our community that would, i would think would be the primary way. Adam, what do you think?
Adam Sheridan 22:59
Yeah, I think With NJ 21, we’ve toyed around with the idea of creating like a formal community or parent board, where we give sort of a voice within us, to the community and in a really accountable way, you know, like a seat at the table. So that’s something we’re going to be trying to build, you know, looking for people that are are interested in doing that. And I think also just a lot of this, we need people to push back on Sweeney’s narrative. His narrative is just anti taxes, which is very popular in New Jersey, everyone wants to complain about property taxes. But, you know, it’s a high tax state. And, you know, we’re not the only reason. Teachers, like you said, teachers are not the only thing that costs money in the state. And since we don’t tax rich people in the state, it’s sort of disingenuous to blame our pensions when we won’t even ask a millionaire to kick in a couple cents for a million dollars. So I think just pushing back in public on this narrative that its us ruining the state is is something Yeah, with your neighbors and your family that really helps.
Heather Warburton 24:04
Yeah, this austerity politics that I mean, this is austerity politics has been being pushed around the country since at least the 70s. I think now, the sort of neoliberal austerity, you know, we’ve got to make all these cuts. And I don’t know why you live in a society if you don’t actually take care of members of the society, but that’s kind of been the push for a while. So I think I’ll push just back against that. We live in a society for a reason. You know, we want our children to be educated, we want people to be taken care of. That’s why we have a society. That’s why we don’t live on an island by ourselves somewhere, cutting down trees. We live in it for the benefits and those benefits costs money and they’re worth it. You get value from your taxes and having some of the best educators in the country is a pretty good value of what you’re getting for your taxes. Any last or closing words of what you’d like to see moving forward. What are we fighting for? You know, what do we want? Are there any talking points you have on any of your websites of what people can say, when they call their legislators?
Adam Sheridan 25:16
Yeah, I think we, one of our core things we call for is fully funding schools through progressive taxation. So it’s easy to say that we should fully fund schools, but the devils in the details of exactly how you do that. And we don’t think raising property taxes on working class people is the way that you do that. The taxes on the wealthy have been slashed since the Christie administration. Sweeney has been very involved in doing that. He signed off on all of them. Chris Christie and Steve Sweeney were basically on the same team cutting taxes on rich people over and over again. So we think progressive taxation, a millionaire’s tax, and then going past that: things like mansion taxes and yacht taxes and estate taxes and all the things that were slashed on the wealthy and corperations, since Christie. Its a core thing that we have to do not just for teachers, but for the state as a whole. And not just to fund things, but just because income inequality is bad for us as a society. And so just a basic level of fairness in taxation and making us all sort of, on the same team, as citizens of the state is important, just in and of itself.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 26:26
And I would also add into that, that, you know, we are number one in the nation. However, as they continue to kind of beat up on teachers and educators throughout the state. At some point, we’re going to have people who are going to say, you know what, I’m not going to go into that profession, because why. It’s not worth it. I’ll go and work for a private company. It’ll be easier. You know, so we’re going to lose good educators, we’re going to have people retiring early, we’re going to have people who were younger, you know, younger, who are not going to go into the profession, and that’s going to essentially bring down our education rating across the country.
Heather Warburton 27:04
Has there ever been any discussion in 21 united or in any of the groups you belong to about not tying school taxes to properties? That ,you know, your education kind of depends on where you live, what zip code you’re in. Has there been discussion about uncoupling those two things?
Adam Sheridan 27:23
Yeah, absolutely. I’m actually on the NJEA school finance committee. So I’m sort of like our school funding guru at this point. And that’s one of, that’s sort of like my hobbyhorse that it’s insane that we couple our property taxes with our educational quality. And then we look at it, the education outcomes are very unequal. They’re very biased by class and by race, and of course they are because that’s how we fund them. And you know, I grew up working poor in a poor area, and the school system there is always starved for funds. And when I’ve taught in a wealthier area and was sort of amazed at the difference. So yeah, I think a definite thing that it absolutely must happen at some point is to take property taxes and take the school funding out of that and base it, whether that’s an income tax system, or some other kind of tax levy, that doesn’t depend that your school funding doesn’t depend on on the zip code that you grow up. And that’s insane that we think that that’s okay.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 28:26
And I think in this most recent reallocation of school funding, you know, they took money away from wealthier districts and gave it support the poorer or urban districts. My district received, you know, a lot of money that they were not receiving, and the answer to the, you know, the party line to the to the wealthier districts was, well, it’s your fault because you were getting this money all this time. And it just really creates a very divisive situation between wealthier districts and poor districts. You know, it becomes a your fault type of stuff. scenario. And that is where, you know, you get into kind of segregation politics and that’s just really not okay.
Heather Warburton 29:07
And I assume that’s by design that they, you know, the people that are trying to break public education. And you know, because they might prefer charter schools or for profit institutions are trying to pit teachers against other teachers and school districts against other school districts. This isn’t an accident that this is being done and played this way.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 29:26
Heather Warburton 29:28
Either one of you have any last words then for the night, it’s been great talking to you guys.
Theresa Zimmerman Fuller 29:36
We just look forward to you know, to any allies that hear this and you know, are interested in who we are and what we’re all about, to to check us out and to reach out to one of us, and we’d love to hear, you know, to talk more with that with anybody that is interested.
Heather Warburton 29:52
And I think it’s really great that you’re getting the message out because a lot of people really have never even heard of path to progress or if they’ve heard of it, they don’t get it. It sounds nice, you know, it’s that naming things in ways that it sounds nice. But so that’s kind of why I’ve been pushing back and saying path the poverty instead of path to progress because it is a path of poverty for public workers. So it’s good to get this information out. So I really appreciate you guys coming on and explaining and walking my listeners through what all this is and why it’s so devastating.
Adam Sheridan 30:24
Yeah, thank you for having us on.
Heather Warburton 30:26
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