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Sweeney Denied State AFL-CIO Endorsement

Angry over Senate president's collective bargaining bill, public employee unions manage to block endorsement at stormy convention.

Credit: Ed Murray/Star Ledger
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

It was a moment of retribution -- at least for leaders of New Jersey's public employee unions.

They refused to deliver the votes needed to endorse Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Senator Donald Norcross, the Democratic labor leaders who joined with Gov. Chris Christie to strip public employees of the right to bargain over health benefits.

The payback came at a tumultuous New Jersey State AFL-CIO endorsement convention yesterday.

It's not as if most of the state’s labor unions turned their backs on Sweeney (D-Gloucester), however, who received 61 percent of the overall vote -- just shy of the two-thirds needed for an endorsement. Norcross (D-Camden) received 59 percent.

"I'm greatly pleased that 61 percent of the delegates supported me and Donald," a disappointed Sweeney said. "We put our lifetime into fighting for the rights of working men and women. It's very short-sighted to judge us on one issue and one vote."

The state labor federation also failed to endorse a single Republican, making no recommendation at all in 45 of the 120 legislative contests.

Still, without the state AFL-CIO endorsement, neither Sweeney nor Norcross can avail themselves of the coordinated support of the state federation in their fall campaigns, including mailings to union members, "get out the vote" labor walks and other services. The same holds true of the other 20 Democrats who voted for the controversial bill that stripped public employees of the right to bargain on healthcare benefits for at least four years and required them to pay more toward pension and healthcare coverage.

A Democratic Legislature

New Jersey State AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech characterized the day as "terrible," but expressed confidence that "the labor movement will realize that it's important to get back together to retain a Democratic majority in the legislature."

"What today's vote says is that the right to collectively bargain is the cornerstone of organized labor," Wowkanech said. "There were many people here today who were very disappointed in the way some of our labor candidates and Democrats voted. Without collective bargaining, there can be no union."

"But nobody really won here today because we have a division in the labor movement. We need to look at the big picture, and we can’t do that if we’re divided," he said after dozens of building trades leaders walked out to protest the federation’s failure to endorse Sweeney and Norcross.

Both the 40-member State AFL-CIO Executive Board and the Committee on Political Education (COPE), the state AFL-CIO’s political arm, tried to take the long view by voting to recommend endorsements for Sweeney, Norcross and Assemblyman John Amodeo (R-Atlantic), the three legislators from the building trades who voted for the pension and health benefits bill, while denying support to other Democrats who had defied the labor movement and backed the bill.

But in a series of roll call votes, Sweeney (61 percent), Norcross (59 percent) and Amodeo (52 percent) all fell short of the necessary two-thirds, and motions to endorse Senators Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) and Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic) and Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden) fell well short of 50 percent. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) didn’t even get a roll call.

Four Democratic legislators who are union officials and voted against the bill were endorsed with enthusiastic cheers: Assemblymen Thomas Giblin (D-Essex), Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer), Joseph Egan (D-Middlesex) and especially Nelson Albano (D-Cape May), a United Food and Commercial Workers shop steward who went against the wishes of South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross, Senator Norcross's brother, in opposing the bill.

Amodeo and Assemblyman Vincent Polistina (R-Atlantic), who is running for the Senate against Whelan, reportedly wanted to oppose the bill, but Christie insisted that there would be no Republican defections, and that was reflected in the AFL-CIO's endorsements.

"This organization has always been a non-partisan organization," Wowkanech noted. "But what we have seen since the election of this governor was that even Republican legislators who have supported us for years have been prevented from voting for us to follow the party line."

Another Convention

The Republican party line vote on the pension and health care bill presents a similar dilemma for the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that is not part of the AFL-CIO. The NJEA, which also has endorsed Republicans it considers to be pro-education in the past, holds its endorsement convention this Saturday. Its president, Barbara Keshishian, has publicly vowed retribution against legislators who voted for the pension and health benefits bill. For the NJEA and public employee unions that were directly affected by Sweeney’s pension and healthcare bill, the endorsement votes are about sending a message.

But even the Communications Workers of America, the largest union in the state government, conceded in its convention flyer urging delegates to vote against legislators who had supported the Sweeney bill, that it is "very unlikely" that their vote would help Republicans take over the legislature. "The legislative map became more Democratic in the last redistricting, and most Democrats are in safe districts," the CWA flyer assured delegates.

From the campaign finance standpoint, Wowkanech said, "While some unions are not going to give any money to candidates who voted for the pension and health benefits bill, I'm sure other unions are going to make sure they give more to make up for those who don’t."

In short, expect the building trades unions to redouble their contributions to Sweeney, Norcross and the other South Jersey Democrats who were not endorsed, as well as to Amodeo, whose union membership trumps his Republican Party membership. In any case, money should not be a major problem because the South Jersey Democrats can expect to benefit from the fund-raising prowess of George Norcross, Sweeney’s childhood friend and the most potent Democratic fund-raiser in New Jersey now that former Governor Jon Corzine has largely left the scene.

The split in the New Jersey State AFL-CIO over the Sweeney and Norcross endorsement, epitomized by the Building and Construction Trade Council’s walkout yesterday in protest, may very well be easier to heal than the split between Sweeney and Norcross and the leaders of the CWA.

Sweeney and Norcross both compared the CWA yesterday to Tea Partiers, with Norcross asserting that they were "minority extremists who were happy to block the will of the majority."

Sweeney dismissed CWA complaints that he had ignored the interests of public sector unions. He noted that he and Norcross had met with both national and local leaders of the CWA, including Hetty Rosenstein, the area director, and Chris Shelton, the CWA vice president "who called me a Nazi," Sweeney recalled.

"We negotiated, but they [the CWA leaders] reneged," the Senate president insisted, describing a tentative agreement that would have capped healthcare contributions at 3 percent -- less than the 6 percent multiyear hike included in his legislation. It also would have included a non-imposition clause to prevent Christie from using his gubernatorial power to unilaterally impose a contract if he and the state government unions fail to reach agreement, as may be likely. Christie’s last offer was for a 3.5 percent wage cut. "Their members would have been a lot better off," Sweeney asserted.

Rosenstein declined to discuss the negotiations with Sweeney and Norcross, referring reporters to a June 23 press release in which the CWA and three other state government unions dismissed Sweeney’s offer as "a worthless salary premium cap on an undefined 'lowest cost' healthcare plan" and complained that the Senate president’s proposal "was not in writing."

She expressed satisfaction yesterday that not a single legislator who voted for the Sweeney bill was endorsed by the AFL-CIO. "We are pleased that the labor movement stood together today and gave its endorsement only to real Democrats, those who stood up for the principle of collective bargaining," she said.

No Secret Ballot

Both Sweeney and Norcross, whose status as delegates from the Ironworkers Union and the South Jersey Central Labor Council gave them the opportunity to make direct pitches to the AFL-CIO convention for support, watched grimly as each union publicly announced its vote yesterday.

"Many delegates felt that Sweeney's leadership on paid family leave, on getting card check recognition for unions in the public sector, and minimum wage legislation should be sufficient to offset his vote on the collective bargaining legislation," Wowkanech said. "They know he personally helped us bring thousands of new members into the labor movement. With over 600 delegates voting, he fell just a little short."

What was surprising was not that Sweeney and Norcross failed to win endorsement, but that they actually came so close in the wake of the furor that their pension and health benefits bill aroused.

Over the past year, the nation’s continuing economic slump and the end of the Obama administration federal stimulus money that had propped up state budgets for two years led state after state to seek increased contributions from teachers, police, firefighters and state and local government workers toward their pensions and health care benefits. In some states such as New York and Connecticut, these changes were adopted through negotiations between the administrations and their unions, while in Wisconsin, Ohio and Massachusetts, governors and legislatures imposed limits on collective bargaining.

What made New Jersey different was that the charge was led in the Democratic-controlled legislature by private sector union leaders, most notably Sweeney, who began calling for public employees to pay more five years ago, and Norcross, who was then still head of the South Jersey Central Labor Council.

The national publicity over the fight to preserve collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, including the long sit-in at the Statehouse in Madison, coupled with the attention that Christie draws as the darling of the Republican Right, brought national attention to the battle in New Jersey.

National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who had attended a pro-Wisconsin rally at the New Jersey Statehouse during the winter, issued a strongly worded letter in June urging Democrats "to stand with working people and protect collective bargaining rights" by opposing the Sweeney bill. The letter was co-signed by nine national union presidents, including not only the five largest public sector unions, but also the United Auto Workers, the United Steel Workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Service Employees International Union.

Trumka and other national union leaders feared that a rollback of collective bargaining rights in New Jersey’s Democratic legislature, coming on the heels of similar setbacks in GOP-controlled Wisconsin and Ohio, would encourage other states to follow suit.

The battle at the national level isn’t over.

The leaders of several New Jersey public sector unions filed an official complaint with Trumka and the national AFL-CIO seeking the removal of Donald Norcross as head of the South Jersey Labor Council on the grounds that his vote for the Sweeney bill had violated his oath of office to preserve collective bargaining.

"Mr. Norcross has acted several times in complete contradiction of his sworn duty as President of the Central Labor Council and against the principles of both the National AFL-CIO and NJ State Federation, specifically endorsing and personally acting to eliminate collective bargaining rights for hundreds of thousands of public sector union members," leaders of the CWA and police and firefighter unions said in the letter.

Norcross resigned his post two weeks ago effective Labor Day, but insisted that the complaint had nothing to do with his resignation and that he had been planning not to seek reelection anyway.

Both he and Sweeney insisted yesterday that they would vote the same way on the pension and healthcare bill today, because their first obligation is to the state's taxpayers and to hard-strapped private sector union members whose work is infrequent and who have already agreed to contract concessions under which they are paying more for their benefits.

"By passing this bill, we saved the future pensions of 800,000 public employees, and we did it with a governor who doesn’t like public workers very much," Sweeney said.

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

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