A group of early childhood educators at the Cherry Hill, N.J., Katz JCC voted on December 17 to ratify a union-organized contract, making them the first employees of a Jewish preschool in the state to secure a labor agreement through collective bargaining.
The product of nearly two years of negotiation, the newly formed shop, the 60-member Katz Early Childhood Federation of Teachers, secured pay increases of up to 25% in addition to maintaining benefits already enjoyed by its members.
According to Cynthia Pickus, head of the teachers’ group, the new contract was ultimately made necessary by the preschool’s growth and success.
“When I started, 14 years ago, there were just 22 teachers,” she said. “It was more like a mom-and-pop operation, but when things grew to their present size, it really needed to be run like a business.”
For many years, teachers would negotiate only for their own particular needs, but over time iniquities arose.
“Through no fault of anybody in particular,” Pickus said, “things became very unfair.”
The union shop came into being through the efforts of Seth Goldstein, a negotiator with the New Jersey State Federation of Teachers. In February 2003, teachers who knew that he helped organize teachers at a nearby Jewish school approached Goldstein, whose daughter went to the JCC’s school.
Initially, at least, Goldstein met with intransigence.
“The administrators were operating under the assumption that the staff came from middle-class households and that this was just extra money for them,” he said.
Wages at the time were as low as $7 per hour.
“It wasn’t like [the teachers] wanted the moon,” Goldstein said. “They wanted a living wage, they wanted a staff-only bathroom and they wanted substitute coverage for when they got sick.”
The executive director of the Katz JCC, Les Cohen, did not return a call for comment.
Though the negotiations were often tense — at one point, the two parties requested the intercession of a local rabbi — the teachers seemed relieved with the result.
“The pay increases and improved working conditions negotiated into the agreement will help me remain in early education,” said teacher Cindy Weinraub.
In addition to the material concessions acquired, the teachers were enthusiastic about their newly gained bargaining power.
“Now people feel that if something comes up, they have a voice, and it’s going be heard through 60 teachers and not through just one,” Pickus said.
Negotiator Goldstein, more at home in the world of hard-bitten deal makers than in that of glue sticks and naps, found that he was taken aback by the teachers’ sense of solidarity.
“I think the reason they were successful is they all put the interests of the group before their own interests — and I don’t think you see that that often anymore.”