New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose cutback of public-employee compensation two years ago made him a national model of Republican strength, now is trying to scrap century-old civil-service rules.
The state bureaucracy, Christie says, is mired in antiquated testing and barriers to promotion. He wants the system run like an efficient private employer, leading to lower costs in the U.S. state with the highest property taxes.
New Jersey’s public-employee unions see the proposal as a renewed Republican drive against government workers’ pay and benefits that peaked in 2011 under Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Christie, 50, is seeking a second term, and he and Walker are potential 2016 Republican candidates for president in a country where unions historically support Democrats.
Christie’s proposal is “the biggest threat to organized labor I’ve seen in 37 years,” said David Forsythe, 65, an administrative analyst from Carteret, as he picketed May 1 outside the state Labor Department building in Trenton. “It speaks to his bigger aspirations. It’s an example of this political agenda that walks side by side with Scott Walker.”
Last year, Arizona and Tennessee rewrote their civil-service rules. Joseph Slater, a professor at the University of Toledo’s law school in Ohio who has studied public-labor unions, said it’s no coincidence that such Republican-led states are following one another.
“It would be naive to think that this was all about state budgets or government services or making the public sector more competitive,” Slater said. “It clearly has a partisan edge to it because unions traditionally, or at least in the last few decades, have supported Democrats much more frequently and enthusiastically than they support Republicans.”
Christie’s proposal would allow job transfers without the exams and competition required since 1908, when New Jersey became the sixth state to establish civil-service rules. The system was an effort to combat the political patronage that allowed corruption to flourish in places like New York City during the Tammany Hall era in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Two years ago, Christie vetoed a Democratic-sponsored bill to update civil-service rules because it failed to allow towns, counties and school districts to opt out of the system. Democrats, who control the legislature, haven’t sent him a new version of the measure with his proposed changes.
Christie now seeks an overhaul through the Civil Service Commission, whose members he appoints. The panel held one hearing on his proposal on a workday in a room that couldn’t accommodate at least half the crowd of about 100, said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation.
Peter Lyden III, a spokesman for the commission, declined to comment on the April 10 hearing. Any action on the governor’s proposal would come after May 17, when the public comment period ends. About 170,000 jobs in New Jersey are subject to civil-service rules.
“He’s starting to gut the regulatory process,” Wowkanech said of Christie. “This has become emblematic of the bullying this administration is famous for. If you think that makes him a stronger presidential candidate, that’s your business.”
Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman, called the union’s assertions “this usual demagoguery, exaggeration or outright lying on issues.”
“This is a narrow proposal,” Drewniak said. “This is not some kind of stripping of the civil-service system.”
Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communications Workers of America, said the changes are being handled “very quietly and quickly.” Christie, she said at the May 1 protest, is coming from “a similar point of view” as Walker.
Walker, 45, set off lawsuits and an unsuccessful recall effort when he signed legislation curbing collective-bargaining rights in 2011. Christie earlier that year stripped public workers of their ability to collectively bargain insurance coverage, raised the minimum retirement age and boosted contributions for pensions and benefits.
Christie, who campaigned for the Wisconsin governor as he fended off the recall, returned to Milwaukee in March for a New Jersey re-election fundraiser hosted by Walker and his wife.
“Chris Christie has begun the job of putting the people back in charge of the government, instead of the unions,” said Greg Mourad, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee, a Springfield, Virginia-based organization that presses states to drop compulsory union membership.
Peter Woolley, a professor of comparative politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, said Christie is “a lot more cautious and considered than Walker.”
“He’s made it clear that he supports the concept and the preservation of unions, but he’s made it equally clear that some things need to change,” Woolley said. “This is really a classic confrontation between the civil service and the executive. You find it not just in New Jersey or Wisconsin. You find it in every country.”