Trenton, NJ – The progressive, pro-worker victories in the halls of Trenton were born more than 20 years ago at the New Jersey State AFL-CIO headquarters on State Street, only a couple hundred or so yards from the capitol building.
The passage of a $15 minimum wage, a landmark paid family leave program and other legislation to lift up New Jersey’s working families are the culmination of an idea we had in 1997. Tired of politicians who took our money and turned their backs, we asked this simple question: Instead of hoping for our leaders to do right by union members, what if we elected union members themselves?
An idea that began on State Street in Trenton soon grew to every corner of our state. The New Jersey State AFL-CIO Labor Candidates Program — a strategic, long-range campaign to make government more worker-friendly — was founded at the local level. Our inaugural class in 1997 featured 17 labor candidates. In the two decades since, we have helped union members achieve 1,025 election victories. This includes a member of Congress, the state Senate president, the chairs of several legislative committees, and representatives on county freeholder boards and city councils from Bergen to Cape May County. New Jersey is one of the most pro-worker states in the entire country.
It wasn’t always this way. In the same year that our program was founded, New Jersey had a governor, Legislature and congressional delegation openly hostile to working people. We set out to change that, one precinct at a time. Our affiliated unions and local labor bodies began aggressively recruiting and training rank-and-file union members on the basics of running for elected office. Now, the national AFL-CIO is modeling our program to the other 49 states.
While we increasingly rely on cutting-edge data and analytics, our success is still driven by old-fashioned grassroots organizing. Not a day goes by that we aren’t mobilizing and engaging union members through voter registration, political education or get-out-the-vote drives. As a result, the proportion of the electorate from union households has surged. In 2012, the last year exit polling was available on labor turnout, an incredible 38 percent of all votes cast in New Jersey came from union households — the highest in the nation. Why the record numbers? Union members were coming out to vote for one of their own.
With pro-labor, progressive-minded policymakers came pro-labor, progressive laws. Two of the most significant examples are the recently enacted $15 minimum wage and New Jersey’s enhanced paid family leave program, the latter of which Gov. Phil Murphy will sign shortly.
The paid leave expansion was originally pushed by Assemblyman Nelson Albano, a union shop steward with United Food and Commercial Workers 152, and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a card-carrying member of the Ironworkers. Sweeney also was the prime sponsor of a law this year that significantly reformed and increased the benefit rates for paid leave. He was joined by Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, a longtime labor supporter; Assemblyman Thomas Giblin, business manager of Operating Engineers 68; and Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, a SAG-AFTRA member.
The minimum wage bump started in 2013 with a referendum that increased New Jersey’s rate to $8.25 an hour and included an automatic annual cost-of-living-adjustment. The New Jersey State AFL-CIO and its affiliates went all in to secure passage of the increase, which former Gov. Chris Christie had vetoed. Sweeney was the prime sponsor of the ballot measure and is now the driving force, along with Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, behind the passage of legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2024. Several other sponsors, including Assemblyman Joseph Egan, business manager of Electrical Workers 456, joined them. This time around, Murphy, who strongly advocated for the raise, signed the bill immediately. Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, IBEW 269, Assemblyman Anthony Verrelli, Carpenters 254, and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, IBEW 400, also voted in favor of the bill.
We haven’t done this alone. From the beginning, we were made stronger by other community partners that shared our policy goals. Together, we created Working Families United for New Jersey, a progressive powerhouse focused on doing what’s right for working people, regardless of whether or not they have a union card. Experience has shown us that real social and economic progress is possible when union members hold office. And with more labor candidates interested in running than ever before, I am confident the best is yet to come.
Charles Wowkanech, of Ocean City, is president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO.