After spending at least a night in jail for participating in an illegal work-stoppage, striking teachers and secretaries in Middletown, N.J. were forced to return to work despite the continued absence of a contract with the Middletown board of education. Held without a contract since June 30, 2000, the Middletown Township Education Association (MTEA) began striking on Nov. 29 due to a school board proposal to increase the amount of money that teachers would be required to pay for medical benefits.

Under a New Jersey statute that prohibits public employees from striking, the members of MTEA were thrown in jail en masse last Thursday after a judge ordered them to return to their classrooms. The teachers” claims are legitimate and their right to strike should have been respected both by the judiciary and legislators who continue to deny them of that freedom.

Instead of discussing terms of their contract with the school board, 228 teachers from MTEA spent the weekend in prison. Traditionally, teacher strikes have been dealt with by imprisoning primary demonstrators or union leaders rather than the bulk of the workforce. By doing so, the Middletown judiciary demonstrated exactly why such restrictions on labor organizations are unjust. Deliberations have been decidedly against the union members as reviews were conducted individually, often with prohibitions on any display of union solidarity. Teachers and secretaries were released only after agreeing to return to work despite there being no clear end in sight to negotiations with the school board.

With practices in place, teachers unions cannot effectively influence employers and Middletown”s school board is taking advantage of it. MTEA submitted another proposal for ending the conflict Friday morning but were quickly turned down again. Without the ability to strike, these educators have no leverage with which to deal with their employers and negotiations run the risk of lasting far too long. While the necessity for the community to keep the schools open is a major consideration, the school board had ample time in the last year and a half to reach a fair agreement with the MTEA and avoid a proactive response from the union.

While primary education is by no doubt a necessity in the United States, teaching is still one of the most underpaid professions in the country, given the amount of secondary education required. Teachers in Monmouth County, N.J., of which Middletown is the largest school district, make an average of $56,000 a year and thus place a major importance on medical benefits.

But without the ability to strike, teachers feel that these concerns will not be heard by the school board. The events in New Jersey only emphasize further the disparity between the powers of the school board and its employees.

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