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Amid Jeers and Arrests, Senate Committee Passes "Collective Bargaining" Bill

Union Leaders Charge Democratic Political Bosses With Cutting Deal With Christie.

Credit: Annie Knox/NJ Spotlight

Legislation to increase public employee pension and healthcare contributions was put on the fast track to passage yesterday after a tumultuous public hearing during which union leaders attacked Democratic "bosses" for cutting a deal with Republican Governor Chris Christie and the two top leaders of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO and 23 other union protesters were arrested on disorderly persons charges.

New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech led a stream of police, firefighter, state and local government employees, and teachers union officials in urging the Senate Budget Committee not to approve legislation that would effectively strip public employees of the right to bargain over healthcare benefits.

"Only through collective bargaining do workers have a voice -- and those who vote for this legislation will be voting to silence the voices of approximately 500,000 workers," Wowkanech warned.

Iron Man

But the committee voted 9-4 to release the bill, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) declared confidently that the legislation will pass the full Senate Monday. "I'll have more than enough votes, more than enough,” said Sweeney, an Ironworkers Union business agent who sat impassively through several hours of criticism by union leaders.

Sweeney said passage of the legislation is necessary to save the pension system from bankruptcy. Christie fully supported the pension changes, but insisted that the Democratic-controlled legislature also require public employees to contribute more toward their healthcare. Christie anticipated first-year healthcare savings of $300 million in his budget. But Treasury Department Chief of Staff Regina Egea acknowledged yesterday that the compromise bill would save only $10 million in its first year, leaving a $290 million hole to be filled in the final appropriations bill being prepared by Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex).

Yesterday’s vote marked the first of at least three voting days that will be required to gain final legislative approval for the compromise announced Wednesday night by Christie, Sweeney, Oliver and Republican legislative leaders. That means at least two more days of mass protests by public employee unions outside the Statehouse and Statehouse Annex, two more days of union threats of political retaliation against Democrats, two more days of inflammatory rhetoric and possibly two more days of arrests.

Yesterday’s 9-4 committee vote offered a roadmap to the final vote in the Assembly Budget Committee, the full Senate and the full Assembly next week. Two South Jersey Democrats and two Hudson County Democrats joined the five Republicans on the panel in voting for the bill. For the pension and health benefits vote at least, the Democrats’ 24-16 control of the Senate and 47-33 majority in the Assembly has been replaced by a new working majority.

The Southern Bloc

The new controlling coalition is made up of Christie’s Republicans, a bloc of 17 South Jersey Democrats loyal to Democratic power broker George Norcross and to Sweeney, several Essex Democrats loyal to Oliver and her boss, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, and a handful of Hudson Democrats led by Union City Mayor Brian Stack.

The makeup of the coalition should come as no surprise. Christie has made close political alliances with both DiVincenzo and Stack, and he recently appeared with Norcross at an event in Camden County where the pair endorsed school voucher and charter school programs.

It was Norcross, DiVincenzo and Stack who engineered the replacement of Senate President Richard Codey with Sweeney in 2009 and the elevation of the unknown Oliver to Assembly speaker, and they will be the ones who will have to fend off any challenge to the leadership of Oliver or Sweeney that comes from Democrats angered by their decision to collaborate with Christie.

Norcross and Sweeney marshaled all six South Jersey Democratic senators and 11 out of 12 Assembly members, with only Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D-Cumberland), a United Food and Commercial Workers shop steward in Vineland, refusing to support the Sweeney legislation. Norcross’ brother, Senator Donald Norcross, (D-Camden), the head of the powerful South Jersey Central Labor Council, is supporting the bill.

Sweeney, who has been pushing for public employees to pay more toward their pensions and health benefits since 2005, was drowned out with boos when he opened his testimony yesterday by asserting, "When I wake up in the morning, I wake up as a union leader." Hecklers shouted, "Give up your union card!" and "How much is Norcross making?" Sweeney dismissed the attacks on Norcross at a press conference later in the day: "They see George everywhere."

While Norcross and Sweeney can boast a solid South, Oliver is in a more tenuous position, as only Senators Nia Gill and Teresa Ruiz and two Assembly members joined her from the large Essex Democratic delegation. Codey, who is a bitter foe of Norcross, joined with Senator Ron Rice and five Essex Assembly members, including Thomas Giblin, an official with the Operating Engineers union, to buck Oliver and stand with labor on the bill.

The Hudson Democratic delegation also is split, with Senators Stack and Assemblywoman Caridad Rodriguez supporting the Sweeney legislation, and Senators Sandra Cunningham and Nick Sacco and their four Assembly running mates opposed.

In all, 41 Democratic legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), and Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union), and virtually all of the Middlesex, Union, Mercer, Bergen and Passaic delegations, are opposing the Sweeney bill. Rumors that Cryan would seek a no confidence vote challenging Oliver’s speakership prompted the Rev. Reginald Jackson, director of the New Jersey Black Ministers Council, to jump to Oliver’s defense Tuesday.

The Promise of Punishment

Union leaders yesterday threatened to punish Democratic legislators who vote for the Sweeney-sponsored health and benefits legislation.

"The NJEA and other unions will find it hard to back Democrats who voted to take away collective bargaining rights," said Vincent Giordano, the New Jersey Education Association’s executive director. "Why Democrats would think it is in their advantage to try to out-Christie Christie makes no sense to me."

"If this bill passes, the only thing that sunsets will be the Democratic Party," warned Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey State Firemen’s Mutual Benevolent Association. Lavin accused Sweeney and Oliver of ignoring a proposal made by the unions last year to increase employee pension contributions in order to reduce local property taxes.

Sweeney angrily dismissed threats of political retaliation by the NJEA or other public employee unions. "We're either going to run this place or they'll run it. I say we have to stand up for the taxpayer and while we'll work with [unions], we're in charge," Sweeney said. “If they want to turn the legislature over to the Republicans," he said, "that’s their choice."

The Senate president pointed out that the compromise legislation included a sunset provision that would allow public employee unions to begin bargaining again on health care in four years. "This isn’t Wisconsin," he insisted, dismissing comparisons to Republican Governor Scott Walker's legislation taking away virtually all collective bargaining rights from government workers.

Sweeney noted that Christie wanted all state and local government workers, teachers, police and firefighters to pay 30 percent of their health premiums starting July 1, while the compromise bill he got Christie to agree to calls for a four-year phase-in of a sliding scale. Workers would pay from 3 percent of premiums for those earning under $25,000 to 35 percent for those making over $100,000.

The sliding scale is the reason that the cost of increased pension and health benefit payments for union members under the legislation varies widely from $1,142 a year for those making $25,000 to $6,058 for those earning $65,000, according to Communications Workers of America (CWA) estimates.

Bob Masters, director of CWA District 1, which includes almost 40,000 New Jersey state government employees, questioned how Christie could oppose reimposition of a millionaire’s tax because it would cost a Wall Street executive making $750,000 an additional $4,800 in income taxes and might drive him to move out of state, but support pension and health benefit increases for state workers making $60,000 that would amount to a $5,000 wage cut. "Working families need to be able to afford to live in New Jersey too," he said.

Kill the Bill

As Masters finished, the 150 union members in the audience led by Wowkanech and New Jersey AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Laurel Brennan stood, locked arms and chanted "Kill the bill" and "Workers rights are human rights."

More than a half dozen New Jersey State Police, who knew that the protest was coming, quickly moved in and offered the chanting protesters the option of leaving the room or being arrested, and the protesters chose arrest. The State Police handcuffed a few from the first row, then marched another 20 out of the hearing room and into an adjacent antechamber for processing on disorderly persons charges. Brennan and Wowkanech were the last two ushered out.

Ironically, the blue-clad State Police who arrested the union protesters are themselves members of the PBA union whose pension and health benefit contributions would be increased under the legislation approved by the Senate Budget Committee yesterday.

"We had to stand up for the right to collectively bargain, just as we did for project labor agreements, paid family leave, prevailing wage and card check in the public sector," Wowkanech said after his release. Wowkanech said it was the second time he had been arrested at a labor protest, the first time coming during the two-year DeLaval Turbine steelworkers strike more than a decade ago.

The rhetoric and protests inside the Statehouse hearing room were mild compared to some of the statements made at the rally outside.

Keith Dunn, a PBA official, complained that "the double dipper in Essex County [DeVincenzo] and the boss in South Jersey [Norcross] have more power than we do right now."

Chris Shelton, the CWA’s regional vice president, referred to the Governor as "Adolf Christie." Noting that Hitler and the Nazis crushed their labor unions, Shelton declared, "Welcome to Nazi Germany. That’s what Christie and his two generals are trying to do," referring to Sweeney and Oliver.

Senator Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), who has sided with the unions on the Sweeney legislation, sharply criticized Shelton’s remarks, and the CWA official apologized.

No one called for apologies to DeVincenzo or Norcross.

Mark J. Magyar teaches labor studies at Rutgers University and is writing a history of the New Jersey labor movement. A veteran Statehouse reporter, he served as deputy policy chief under Governor Christie Whitman and as policy director for the independent Daggett for Governor campaign in 2009.

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