Unions Rally at New Jersey Capitol Against Christie, Walker
Thousands of union members rallied in the rain outside New Jersey’s Capitol to protest Governor Chris Christie’s proposed benefit cuts and show support for workers fighting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s bill to limit collective bargaining.
More than 3,000 people gathered today, according to Sgt. Brian Polite, a spokesman for the state police. Protesters clad in slickers and boots carried signs that read, “Christie for Ex-Governor” and “Unions Built the Middle Class,” and sang labor anthems including “We Shall Overcome.” Fifty-seven unions were represented, according to the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s teachers union.
Republican governors including Christie, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich are trying to change rules for collective bargaining and worker contributions for health care and pensions as U.S. states face deficits that may reach a combined $125 billion in the next fiscal year.
“We will turn back Walker in Wisconsin together,” Larry Cohen, national president of the Communications Workers of America, which represents 55,000 state and local-government employees in New Jersey, told the crowd. “We will turn back Kasich in Ohio together. And we will turn back Chris Christie together. That’s how it happens: First it’s a spark, then a flame and it grows. Today, we’re a movement.”
Christie wants to force government workers to cover 30 percent of their health-care premiums, up from about 8 percent now. The first-term governor also has proposed reversing a 9 percent pension-benefits increase enacted in 2001, raising the minimum retirement age and freezing annual cost-of-living raises.
Lawmakers in Wisconsin’s Senate are deadlocked over Walker’s proposal to restrict collective bargaining. In Ohio, Kasich has also called for charging employees more for benefits. Such proposals have sparked union demonstrations in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana. Rallies were planned for 27 states this week, including today’s in Trenton, which packed the steps and shut down traffic in front of the Statehouse.
“We won’t stand for governors who decide to throw contracts away,” said Bill Lucini, 57, business agent of the National Association of Letter Carriers in Philadelphia, “We’ll go to every state if we have to.”
About two-dozen Tea Party supporters marched in favor of Christie about a half-block from the rally. Members of the movement, a loose coalition of anti-tax advocates, said the Christie legislation would level a playing field that has become skewed toward unions and must be corrected.
“This is over-reaching and this is not what unions were created for,” Anna Little, mayor of Highlands and a Tea Party- backed Republican congressional candidate who lost in November, said to reporters prior to the rally. “It is perfectly appropriate for any employer at any time to determine what salary, wages, and benefits are available to his or her employees. And that’s what the state of New Jersey is attempting to do.”
Michael Drewniak, spokesman for the governor, declined to comment on the union gathering and circulated a transcript of a radio interview yesterday in which Christie said he didn’t care about the event. Christie was in Washington today for a National Governors Association meeting, according to Maria Comella, a spokeswoman.
Those at the rally included state workers, teachers and local-government employees from across New Jersey, as well as about a dozen Democratic lawmakers. Industrial unions from the Garden State, neighboring Pennsylvania and Virginia also attended.
If government-union rights go down, companies’ labor groups may be next in line, said Stan Luck, 47, an employee with New York-based telephone company Verizon Communications Inc. and CWA member who traveled from his home in Richmond, Virginia, for the demonstration.
“This will have a snowball effect that will impact everyone,” said Rita Hrcsko, 54, a registered nurse and member of Local 5058 of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees. “Everybody has the basic right to negotiate a contract.”
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