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Does 9 TO 4 Budget Panel Vote Presage Labor’s Defeat?

June 18, 2011
By Bob Hennelly

On his WNET- WNYC call in show it was time for Governor Chris Christie to take a preliminary victory lap to celebrate the passage in Committee earlier in the day of a public employee benefit reform plan he said would generate $122 billion in savings over the next 30 years for the state’s beleaguered
pension system.

He told program host Steve Adubado the bill, a compromise he forged with Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney, would bring the state’s pension  fund back from the brink of collapse to solvency. If so, full passage would mean a real tangible accomplishment with a big assist from key Democrats.

“I think most citizens want public employees to get the pensions they’ve earned but they want fairness and everyone to share sacrifice,” said Christie who did give in on several key points to get to yes with Democrat AND trade Unionist Sweeney, who’s an official with the Iron-workers.

Earlier in Trenton the new social order was on full display with organized labor left to yell from the sidelines. Four Democrats and five Republicans voted out to the full Senate  the controversial public employee benefit reform bill backed by Governor Christie and Democratic leaders Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver.

As a chamber packed with union members looked on only four Democrats Senators Barbara Buono, Sandra Cunningham, Linda Greenstein, and Budget Chair Paul Sarlo opposed the measure which suspends the state’s long tradition of collective bargaining for health care benefits.

Even as two dozen union activists led by NJ AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech chanted “kill the bill” and “worker rights are human rights” the Christie, Sweeney, Oliver juggernaut rolled on. It had been decided public workers would now be part of the downward slide their private sector compatriots have endured for a generation.

Democratic Senators Brian Stack, James Beach, Teresa Ruiz and Jeff Van Drew all backed the Christie Sweeney bill that will force public employees to pay more and work longer for their benefits.

AFL-CIO leader Wowkanech and other two dozen other agitated trade unionists were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. The loss of their behind the scenes power left only with them with heckling the march of history. Outside at a rally with thousands of union members looking on Christopher Shelton of the CWA referred to Governor Christie as “Adolph” and New Jersey as “Nazi Germany.”

Democratic Senator Linda Greenstein said the bill was a blow to collective bargaining and was part of national campaign to scapegoat public workers for the ongoing economic crisis.

“We got into a mess according to these people because public workers wanted something for nothing and weak minded politicians catered to their foolishness. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The suspension of collective bargaining for health benefits would sunset in it’s fourth year explained South Jersey Democrat Senator Van Drew. Christie and his Democratic allies have said the state faces $100 billion dollars in unfunded pension and health care benefit plan liabilities and without the roll back now in benefits the plans and the state would be insolvent.

Democrat Van Drew said he had been a life long supporter of the American labor movement but the bi-partisan legacy of  the state not making the required  pension contributions meant  swift legislative action was essential for the long term state and pension funds fiscal viability.
“But we have a problem. This pension as the Senate president outlined  before, if we continue to move the way we are, believe me, and I have read the bill, this pension will default in a relatively short period of time, “said Van Drew.

For some how they voted was rooted in their political DNA. Democratic Budget Chair Paul Sarlo explained in poignant personal terms why he could not back a bill that suspended the right to collectively bargain for health-care.

“My dad who passed away a year and a half ago worked as a construction worker for a small family owned company, non union no health benefits, no pension and died from many illnesses he suffered because he did not have the proper health care.”

But opponents in the chamber did not have a monopoly on eloquence. Earlier in the day it was Eldridge Hawkins, Mayor of Orange, who testified his struggling City desperately needed the costs savings contained in the Christie Sweeney compromise. Hawkins said passing the ever escalating benefit costs along to homeowners  through the local property taxes was no longer an option.

“We get the phone calls.  Mayor Hawkins  we can’t stay in our house we are on a fixed income. That $500 a dollar month increase is making choose  between my prescription coverage  and taxes,” recounted Hawkins. “They can’t afford it. They are loosing their homes, foreclosures, short sales throughout the state.”

The package of health care and pension reforms may come up for a vote as soon as next week. Governor Christie is counting on $300 million dollars on  potential savings as part of his budget for next year which has to be finalized by the end of June. Other state officials put the actual projected savings at a fraction of that.

Public union leaders told the Senate panel the move to impose the changes to workers benefits by legislative action and not through negotiation was a “Wisconsin” like attack on the state’s history of collective bargaining with public workers. But the Democrats who have closed ranks with Christie said the state’s balance sheet and the tainted legacy generation of bi-partisan mismanagement of the state pension left them with little choice.

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