When thousands of private-sector workers participated in two high-profile strikes in New Jersey earlier this year, Democratic legislative leaders scrambled to help them out by drafting legislation to make it easier for them to collect unemployment benefits.
But Gov. Chris Christie earlier this week rejected that bill and, in a strongly worded conditional veto sent back to lawmakers, said he thinks the state should go further in the opposite direction by eliminating a limited exception that already allows some striking workers to qualify for state unemployment checks.
The sponsors of the bill immediately criticized the governor’s action. State Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the leader of the Senate, where the legislation originated, has indicated Christie’s conditional veto will never be considered. That means Christie’s recommendation to make it harder for striking workers to collect unemployment is likely already dead.
Still, the political disagreement over unemployment benefits comes at a time when concerns about corporate greed and income inequality are straining employer-worker relations across the country. In New Jersey, it has raised the question of whether the state should eventually follow the course of other states that have already rewritten their laws to make it easier for striking workers to collect unemployment.
The bill that New Jersey lawmakers sent to the Republican Christie at the end of September would have allowed workers who go on strike here to collect unemployment benefits immediately if their employer is breaking a contract or collective-bargaining agreement or if the employer is locking them out of work. The measure also created a 30-day window to encourage negotiations between striking workers and employers before workers striking under other circumstances could qualify for unemployment.
Both provisions, modeled after new laws that are already in effect in New York and Alaska, seek to expand an exception in the current New Jersey law, which allows striking workers to collect unemployment if their work action doesn’t substantially impact their employer’s business.
The legislation was drafted in early May, as thousands of Verizon workers, including many in New Jersey, were already several weeks into a strike called to address concerns about pay and healthcare coverage. Verizon had prepared for the strike ahead of time by training non-union workers to handle the duties of the unionized employees, including handling landline repairs and customer-service calls, and the strike wasn’t settled until the end of May.
But even though the unemployment-benefits bill didn’t make it out of the Legislature in time to help the Verizon workers, lawmakers kept up the effort as roughly 1,000 Trump Taj Mahal casino workers went on strike in July. That work stoppage came after the workers clashed with new casino owner Carl Icahn over pension and health benefits. As the strike dragged on for months, Icahn eventually decided to close the Taj Mahal on October 10, a little over a week after lawmakers sent the unemployment-benefits bill to Christie’s desk.
In the conditional veto that Christie sent to lawmakers on Monday, he said unemployment compensation “should not be used as a tool to give labor organizations additional leverage in labor negotiations.” He also said the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund should only be a resource “for individuals who do not have the option to return to their jobs.”
The unemployment fund has only recently been restored to good health after frequent raids by prior governors from both parties left it on the verge of bankruptcy at the start of the Great Recession. But with the trust fund now operating with a sizable surplus, New Jersey employers this summer were provided with a $380 million break on payroll taxes, which help to support the fund.
Christie said in the conditional veto that he’s worked hard to protect the unemployment fund from fraud, and he said the current exception for striking workers “already affronts the original purpose of the unemployment compensation law.”
“I recommend not only removing the language in this bill expanding the availability of benefits to striking workers not currently eligible for benefits, but also amending the language of the current law to make it clear that all striking workers are disqualified from receiving benefits,” the conditional veto said.
But his recommendations already appear to be dead on arrival in the Legislature. It would take approval by the Senate and Assembly, which are both controlled by Democrats, for Christie’s recommendations to become law. A spokesman for Sweeney said yesterday that Christie’s conditional veto will not be put up for consideration in the upper house, which is where the bill was first introduced.
A statement issued by Sen. Joe Vitale, one of the bill’s sponsors, also called Christie’s action a “disservice to New Jersey workers.” Vitale (D-Middlesex) suggested the governor lacks the understanding that for many workers going on strike is a last resort, one that also can jeopardize their health coverage.
“Striking workers not only lose their wages in their struggle for fair pay but also risk losing their health benefits,” Vitale said. “Failing to provide unemployment compensation leaves workers and their families, who may be in the midst of receiving medical treatment, stranded without health benefits or any income to pay for their medical expenses.”
“Every worker deserves to be fairly compensated and to be treated with dignity, but there must be some recourse if negotiations fail,” he said.