Friday, July 21, 2006

State Budget - Bergen Record - 2a of 6 - Timing everything for NJEA power broker

Published in the Bergen Record, Monday, July 17, 2006

Companion to 2 of 6
Timing was everything for NJEA power broker


Vincent Giordano's salary was $5,100 in 1964, the year he started as a social studies teacher in Upper Saddle River. He had no idea what he'd make the next year.

It turned out to be $5,200.

"So I counted on my one hand, the other hand, and all my toes and I said, 'This is not going to cut it at that pace,' " Giordano said.

So he went to work for the union.

Talk about timing.

In 1968, the Legislature gave teachers the right to bargain collectively. A bloodless revolution was at hand. Giordano -- whose father had told him that, except for the priesthood, teaching was the most respectable profession -- was a Bergen County field representative in the vanguard of change.

Today, in his office in the New Jersey Education Association's building across State Street from the capitol in Trenton, Giordano -- round, sharply dressed and 64 years old -- smiles at the results of his four decades of labor on behalf of the rank and file.

Teachers are doing well. Not as well as he'd like -- never as well as he'd like. Starting salary for an Upper Saddle River teacher is $41,000. Teachers at the top of the pay scale there and throughout North Jersey often make more than $90,000.

Teachers' health insurance is paid by school districts throughout the state. Pensions are comfortable. And in Trenton, whenever the NJEA tells the Legislature to jump, it jumps.

Giordano, as much as anyone, made that happen.

Other unions, like the AFL-CIO, are splintering. The United Auto Workers are mulling serious givebacks to help bail out failing employers and the Longshoremen are watching their leaders get hauled off to prison for corruption.

Not Giordano's union. The NJEA, which represents teachers and other school workers in all but five districts in the state, has kept its nose clean. It's gone from four field offices in the late 1960s to 22 today. From 75,000 members in 1971 to nearly 200,000 in 2006. It's well-organized. It's democratic. It's run by the members.

Giordano, as much as anyone, made that happen, too.

Now he's the assistant executive director -- boss of all 57 field reps in the state. Gone are the days when he could use his fingers and toes as an abacus to calculate his annual pay raise. Although he won't say how much he earns, Giordano wears nice suits and lives in a home in Watchung that's assessed at $1.1 million.

The two Vinces

Giordano downplays his accomplishments. That's the union way. A lot of people had a hand in the NJEA's success, he'll tell you. But he's been a major-league force.

"In our corner of the world, we built the NJEA," said Vincent Perna, who partnered with Giordano in the union's Bergen County field office for 24 years.

The two Vinces, they were called. They worked out of Hackensack and then Oradell, fighting traffic up and down Route 4, Kinderkamack Road, Route 17, to deliver pep talks to teachers who brought grievances against their school districts and coach local negotiators in putting together favorable contracts. They made themselves available all day, every day, and a lot of nights, committed to building the NJEA into the powerhouse it's become.

They got a head start on the school boards in the years after collective bargaining came in. They wrote the boilerplate for the contracts, some of which is still used today. They plotted out the yearly raises teachers would get. They figured out how to preserve free medical coverage. They persuaded school districts to give teachers 24 hours' notice before evaluations and allow teachers to challenge bad reviews.

And though Giordano will tell you the school boards have caught up, it's not true. The advantage exploited by Giordano and Perna in the late 1960s and early 1970s is a legacy that persists to this day.

Giordano and Perna. The two Vinces. One played Good Vince, the other Bad, Perna said.

"I was the 'Let's go throw a can in the front door and see how big the explosion is and see if we can fix it,' " Perna said. "He was more 'Let's see if we can massage this into place and see if we can do it without an explosion.' "

Still, Perna noted, Giordano "presided over more strikes in Bergen County than anyone else, even me."

In the most memorable, Englewood teachers walked off the job twice – in 1975 for 12 days and in 1982 for 17 days. A 19-day strike in Teaneck in 1982 ended with the acceptance of a three-year contract calling for a 19 percent raise over the first two years and a cost-of-living increase -- between 7.5 percent and 9.5 percent -- the third.

'The R word'

Those hard-won raises set the tone for the rest of the region, and marked the beginning of the end of the days of the poorly paid public-school teacher.

Giordano, as much as anyone, made that happen.

How did he do it? Relationships, he'll tell you. It's all about relationships.

"That's my word, the R word," Giordano said. "This business, this process of negotiations, is basically about relationships. Developing and nurturing relationships. It's about some technical stuff, too -- you have to kind of know what you're talking about. But ultimately it gets down to your ability to develop a working relationship with someone so they feel comfortable."


"One of the things about bargaining is it's about relating to people," said Lester Aron, an attorney with Sills, Cummis in Newark who tangled with Giordano for years as a negotiator for school districts. "Vince was always very good at talking to my clients. He was businesslike, not threatening. Superintendents and board members respected him because he knew his business and he wasn't crazy. He was not a dirty fighter."

Relationships. Built over plates of osso buco and bottles of merlot in every decent Italian restaurant from Moonachie to Mahwah.

"When Vince was a field rep, he knew all the best Italian restaurants and enjoyed them all," Aron said. "Whenever we ate together, we'd go to a place he knew and I didn't."

Perna remembers that, too -- a revolution fueled by pasta and marinara.

"Vince subscribed, and still does, that there's no problem a good bottle of wine can't fix," he said.


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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.