On the second floor of the State House, around the glass panes surrounding a packed Senate Gallery stood some 50 people, mainly school board members, staring intently at the tally board as the Senators voted on a bill, A-585/S-1235. When the “no’s” reached 21, most of the crowd erupted into applause and shouts of triumph; a few remained silent – not disappointed, not happy, just interested. After all, this was the “lobbying battle of the year,” as some in the news media termed it.

It was the afternoon of June 30, 1983, and NJSBA and local boards of education had prevailed over an extremely well-funded and highly visible campaign by the state teachers union.

The legislation at issue would have created a “permissive category” of negotiations, allowed decisions over educational and public policy matters to be determined at the bargaining table – that is, behind closed doors – and allowed the terms of labor contracts to supersede state regulation. Those involved at the time undoubtedly recall it as the ultimate battle between labor and management or, as we termed it, special interests versus the public interest.

Amazingly, just 56 days before the Senate’s 18-22 defeat of the legislation, the Assembly had passed the bill by an overwhelming margin. The difference in tenor between the Senate and Assembly sessions was striking.

On May 5, an Assembly leader stood up in support of the proposal, saying, “We’re fighting for our rights just like the people in Poland.” This was a reference to the Solidarity movement in a nation that was in the early stages of throwing off more than 35 years of totalitarian oppression – an analogy that even supporters of A-585 should have found a bit of an exaggeration.

In contrast, on June 30, the respected chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Matthew Feldman, spoke in opposition to the bill, stating, “This is not an education bill. We are voting on a major change in the structure and nature of power and responsibility at every governmental level…. This is not in the public interest.”

Between May 5 and June 30, something turned the tide. What was it?

Let’s start with the day of the Senate vote itself. On the morning of June 30, more than 200 local school board members and other public officials traveled to Trenton. They started the day at a briefing session at the State Museum Auditorium, led by NJSBA’s Executive Director Lloyd Newbaker and featuring leaders of allied groups, including the then-chief lobbyist of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, Bill Dressel. Afterward, the group converged on the State House, attending various legislative committee meetings, and engaging in discussion those lawmakers who were on the fence.

The groundwork – the outreach and the coalition-building – for this wave of advocacy by our membership had galvanized in the weeks following the May 5 Assembly vote. During this period, statements of opposition came from the Commissioner of Education and the State Board of Higher Education. Organizations representing businesses, taxpayers, and local government pledged their support for NJSBA’s position. Groups of school board members and administrators made visits to legislative district offices.

Even though we knew that Gov. Tom Kean opposed the bill, the May 5 margin of victory in the Assembly – well over the two-thirds veto-proof majority – was a serious concern and warranted the highest level of urgency on the part of the Association staff and membership.

Our Governmental Relations team, headed by Ted Reid, was tenacious in its opposition at every turn and, with our Labor Relations staff, headed by Garry Whalen, formulated a plan to turn the Senate against the bill. The director of our Field Services Department, Joe Flannery, felt that the legislative update sessions at county school boards associations had a dramatic impact on the attitudes of the state Senators toward the bill. For me, the fact that, during this 56-day period, nearly every major newspaper in the state published editorials against the legislation – they could not abide the lack of transparency that would have resulted from the bill – was key. The credit for that goes to my boss at the time, Loretta Brennan, a truly classy lady whose media connections I could never hope to attain.

Everyone wanted to take credit for the defeat of A-585/S-1235. Everyone deserved to take credit.

NJSBA grew that day. We became more widely recognized as the counterbalance to the unions, and also as an unequivocal supporter of the public’s interest and efforts to advance education.

Since 1983, there have been changes in labor law, some good, some not so good. And today, the folks at NJEA are at various times our respected colleagues, our allies, or our adversaries. It all depends on the issue.

But the lesson of June 30, 1983 – that is, when the public’s interest is at stake, unity, aggressive advocacy, and building relationships can be a match for even the best-funded lobbying campaign – is as relevant today as ever.

Frank Belluscio is NJSBA’s deputy executive director and communications department director.