New Jersey Unions Say Rights Are Non-Negotiable

Thousands crowded in front of the New Jersey Capitol in a freezing rain Friday to lend their solidarity to the occupation continuing in Wisconsin's statehouse.

Fifty-seven unions were represented in the Trenton gathering, and speakers made sure to point out the multitude of private sector unionists turning out to support public workers.

The head of the New Jersey Education Association said all sides of the union movement are uniting to reject the "middle-class civil war" right-wing forces are trying to engineer.

Unions from Massachusetts to Virginia stood together in New Jersey to oppose the severe budget put forward by that state's governor, too.

Governor Chris Christie's called for drastic cuts to education, transportation, health, and other key government services. He called for public workers to pay for 30 percent of their benefits and refused to renew a millionaire's tax to shore up the budget shortfall.

Teachers union officials said the benefit demands would amount to a $5,000 pay cut, a sizeable sum for “overpaid” public workers.

"You'd be shocked how few millionaires work in our nation's public schools," one mocked.

AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka headlined the rally Friday, and struck a conciliatory tone. He signaled that union leaders are willing to "find reasonable answers" to budget deficits at the bargaining table. But he drew the line at stripping bargaining rights, the latest demand from Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin.

"They've been abusing us for years," Trumka said. "They've taken a lot from us. But they can't take our rights."

Police estimated the crowd in Trenton at more than 3,000. Unions put the number thousands higher.

Robert Harsch, a member of Carpenters Local 6, said he came out because if state leaders push through limits on prevailing wages and Project Labor Agreements, contractors will slice jobs into smaller and smaller parts until they can escape rules that guarantee union wages and work rules for construction projects. But he wasn't there just for his own reasons.

"If we let the public sector go we won't have a leg to stand on," Harsch said. Several building trades locals announced donations that visiting Wisconsin unionists will take back to Madison.



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Trumka emphasized that governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Christie in New Jersey were attempting to exploit a budget crisis that they themselves set in motion.

They fight hardest for tax breaks for corporations and the rich, and then the tax cuts create deficits and the urgency to cut.

"The rich are cutting off our noses but it'll spite their face," said Jonathan Reid, a member of Communications Workers Local 1037 who works in New Jersey's department of youth and family services. If the rank and file can't buy houses and shop in stores, who will keep the economy afloat?

"We held up our end of the bargain," Trumka said. "We contributed to our pensions every year."

But for 15 years New Jersey politicians, Republican and Democrat alike, short-changed contributions to the pension fund. When the economy crashed, the already weakened pension fund tanked with it—and now public workers are being asked to give up decades of patient saving.

"A contract is a contract when it's for a million-dollar bonus, but when it's state workers, contracts have to be renegotiated," said Peggy Athergon, who also works in the youth and family services department.

If Christie's plan goes through, Athergon says she would have work an extra 10 years to qualify for her pension. "You can't pull the rug out from under people when they're in their 50s," she said, her voice rising. "I saved. I made my contributions."

The head of New Jersey's NAACP noted that in attacking public unions the governor is attempting to turn back gains made over decades of struggle by people of color, who make up the majority of state workers. "We will not go back," he promised.

Tamara Gross, a special education teacher, said she's just scraping by as it is. She's already carrying a caseload of 27 students in the Cinnaminson schools. "People complain the education system isn't any good," she said, and lawmakers are seizing on that disenchantment to fire teachers en masse. Just yesterday, the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, laid off all of the city's 1,900 teachers.

"Where do they think they'll find people who will work harder than us?" she asked.

A small of group of counter-protesters affiliated with a Koch brothers group got into a yelling match with union members on the rally's fringe. During the encounter, a tea partier blamed the state's deficits on spend-happy Democrats. The unionist said labor comes together to defend good jobs for working people, regardless of who's in power. I don't have a good job, the tea partier responded. Well, come on over here, said the union guy. We know how to fix that problem, and we don't discriminate.