The Power of Unions: NJSEA Talks Labor and Union Movement Retreat

by Mariah Belber, The College of New Jersey

     On October 16, NJSEA members from across the state attended a lecture that discussed the history of the labor movement and how NJEA formed and transformed throughout the years.
Some of the earliest events in the labor movement go back to 1804, in which cordwainers, or shoemakers, went on strike for higher wages in Philadelphia but were convicted of criminal conspiracy. By 1842, Commonwealth vs. Hunt ruled unions legal in Massachusetts. Soon after unions began to take shape, NJEA was founded on December 28, 1853, in Trenton.

Elizabeth Allen — first woman VP and eventual President of NJEA

The beginning of NJEA was predominately a union for male administrators, rather than for teachers. By 1875, they aided in passing the Thorough and Efficient Law, which issued mandatory public education to everyone at no cost. NJEA continued to make great strides in education and in the union world by electing Elizabeth Allen at the age of twenty-eight as Vice President of NJEA. In her lifetime, Allen set up and improve much of the policy we have today, such as the pension fund, tenure (opposed by much administration), and other topics surrounding public education. By 1913, Elizabeth Allen became president of NJEA. Finally, by 1979, NJEA was inclusive of all teachers, administrators, and ESPs.

Unions have fought hard to gain rights for workers, such as collective bargaining, salary increases, and even as simple as the right to unionize, but along the way, unions and the workers in those unions have been met with a fair amount of hardships and obstacles. Right-to-Work laws undermine a worker’s right to join a union. There have been divisions among the young and the old. Teachers have been jailed for rallies and strikes across the state. Promises of pension payments have fallen the wayside – the first failed payment by Christie Whitman in 1994. And with the coming election, unions are likely holding their breath.

Christine “Christie” Whitman — first governor of NJ to fail to make pension payment

Despite hardships faced in unions everywhere, the history of NJEA is rich, and the organization has aided in conducting a large amount of positive change for those in the education profession across the state. Having this particular retreat, which was open to preservice and Early Career members, taught those in attendance how a group of united people that share common interests and goals can accomplish great feats.
It was surprising to see how much NJEA was involved in the labor movement, and I know I found it especially interesting to see how the Normal School, later to become The College of New Jersey, was formed from the lobbying from NJEA. I know this experience empowered me to work towards accomplishing the goals I have set for NJSEA. Many of my fellow ambassadors and chairs felt the same way about how unions are unbelievably impactful. Below are their comments about the Labor Movement Retreat:

Before this retreat, I knew very little about the labor movement, and I knew even less about how it related to NJEA. Being able to hear about how NJEA was founded as an organization for primarily administration and morphed into an organization that actually served teachers and later ESPs was really interesting. It was impressive and inspiring to see how women took a lead in shaping this organization when they were often not in powerful leadership roles during this time in America. – Chelsea Hahn, The College of New Jersey

Learning about how NJEA’s history intertwines with the progression of the labor movement makes me even more proud to be part of a union that works hard to protect members and grants equal opportunities for all. I’m grateful that NJEA expanded to include a preservice branch so future educators can get involved with the interworking and benefits of the union early on. – Deanna Kollar, Rowan University
Learning about the history of the labor movement brought to light the struggles organizations like ours went through to become successful. It is times like these, when our profession is continuously threatened, that we should remember the true strength and reason behind our union. Knowing the triumphs of our predecessors and the triumphs of organizations and unions similar to ours, allows us to persevere through hard times. We may not be fighting for the same exact thing, but we are all fighting for fairness, truth, honesty, integrity, and dedicated work. I feel as though I owe it not only to myself but also, to my students, colleagues, and the profession as a whole to fight because throughout the years, so many have fought to get the opportunities and the voice that I am able to have now. It would be dishonorable for me to not continue their legacy. – Jessica Quijano, The College of New Jersey

Learning about the labor movement was insightful. NJEA members are fortunate to have such great leaders throughout the years that have helped to shape the union into what it is today. It is important for us to study and share the history and be grateful to those past strong leaders that got us here so we continue to rise strong. – Danielle Curry, Montclair State University

As a participant in the Labor and Union Movement Retreat, I especially enjoyed learning about women’s involvement within unions. From this experience, I gained greater insight to the bravery and commitment these leaders put forth in order to guarantee equal wages and rights for women within the workplace. Elizabeth Allen, NJEA’s first female vice president and, eventually, president, was a fearless leader that created many of the rights teachers have today. – Lian Refol, Montclair State University

What is a fact about the labor movement that surprised you? Why are you grateful for unions?


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