N.J. Dems stiff organized labor

Related Jon Corzine stories: here

Unionists in other labor-states are shocked

It was a rare - if not unheard of - scene. New Jersey public workers' union officials had failed to get their way. They rallied around the Statehouse. They protested outside Senate offices. They demanded lawmakers not cut taxpayer-paid health and retirement benefits, and got some to agree. But when all was said and done the Legislature still voted to slice benefits for newly hired state and local government workers and teachers. The outcome left organized labor - long a leading backer of Democrats who control New Jersey government - dismayed.

"We believe that it represents a fundamental trampling of the rights of collective bargaining," said Bob Master, a director with the Communications Workers of America that represents 55,000 state and local government workers.

For years, New Jersey teachers and state and local government workers have received taxpayer-paid benefit enhancements both through contract talks and legislative action. They got this while helping bankroll Democrats who have controlled state government since 2002.

The enhancements included a 9 percent pension hike that came as the state's pension fund suffered stock market losses and state and local governments failed to contribute to the fund, which now faces a $28 billion deficit.

State workers and Gov. Jon S. Corzine agreed last year to a new contract that required workers pay more for their pensions and health care, but some lawmakers felt that wasn't enough with the state facing chronic fiscal woes, soaring property taxes and projections showing public employee benefit costs doubling by 2010.

They also noted Corzine's plan to entice more state workers to retire would mean higher retirement benefit costs.

But the plan meant picking a fight with some of their closest allies, especially for officials such as Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney, a top official in an ironworkers union.

"I never imagined this legislation would receive the amount of opposition it did," said Sweeney, D-Gloucester. "The state union leaders who protested this legislation did what they felt that had to do, and I did what I felt had to be done to make sure their pension fund is healthy for the future."

The fight may not be over. Sweeney promised Republicans he would seek more benefit changes next year.

It's still unclear what the dispute between Democrats and public workers may mean, but public worker unions are making clear they're unhappy. That could prove key in a state in which 19.2 percent of the workers are unionized, the nation's fourth highest rate.

"We are deeply distressed by the direction this debate has taken," Master said.

It could first play out next year, when all 80 Assembly members are up for election.

Organized labor donated $7.5 million to New Jersey legislators and candidates during the 2007 elections, making it the largest private contributor to state politicians, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, donated $568,840, with 72 percent of that going to Democrats.

But now the NJEA is among the most incensed by the changes.

"We can do better. We must do better," said NJEA President Joyce Powell. "This is the proud, progressive state of New Jersey."

Legislators approved increasing the retirement age from 60 to 62, requiring government workers and teachers earn $7,500 per year to receive a pension, eliminating Lincoln's Birthday as a holiday, allowing the state to offer incentives not to take health insurance and requiring a municipal employee work 20 hours per week to get health benefits.

That's less than sponsors sought. Plans to change how pensions are calculated, require employees work 30 hours per week to get a pension and limit people with multiple public jobs to one pension were killed.

"There is no question that NJEA turned the tide against these proposals, which would have reduced or eliminated the pensions of countless NJEA members in the future," Powell said.

But legislators said it's also more than they've done to cut public worker benefits in recent memory.

"Yes, this legislation could be stronger, but the reality is that change is needed now," said Senate Budget Chairwoman Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex.

Public workers contend they already agreed to cut their benefits last year under the pact that extends through 2011. Corzine's administration contends it will save $6 billion over the next 15 years.

"Apparently, at least for some members of the Legislature, this is an inconvenient document," Master said, waving a copy of that contract.

Rae Roeder, president of CWA Local 1033, said the Legislature has "has destroyed the concept of negotiated contracts."

Legislators said public workers didn't complain when legislators enhanced benefits without negotiations.

"Were these fights bigger than they needed to be?" asked Sweeney. "Sure, but change is rarely met without opposition."


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All good union members in Gloucester County can send Sweeney a message and vote him out as a freeholder.

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