New Jersey Democratic leaders seeks to end public sector bargaining rights on benefits

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, yesterday called union members selfish for wanting to protect their collective bargaining rights and resisting efforts to cut their take home pay by between 5 percent and 8 percent. Sweeney has been working with Republican Gov. Chris Christie on a plan that will eliminate the right of public workers to bargain collectively on health care and pension benefits. The plan will also significantly raise the cost of health care premiums for public employees and increase the the amount they contribute to their pensions, thus reducing their paychecks.

Currently Gov. Christi’s administration is in collective bargaining negotiations with the CWA, which represents 55,000 New Jersey state and local government workers and is the state’s largest state employees union. During the negotiations, Gov. Christi has been trying to get CWA to agree to accept large increases in the amount that state employees pay for their health insurance premium. The union has presented a counter proposal that would save the state about $200 million in health care cost.

“New Jersey’s public worker  unions offered Gov. Christie a proposal at the bargaining table that would save New Jersey hundreds of millions of dollars by shifting some costs onto workers–but also by taking commonsense steps that dozens of other states have shown can slow the rising cost of health care,” said Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey state director of the CWA.

Sweeney’s and Christie’s proposal will raise public worker health care premium by between 3 percent and 35 percent depending on the amount of a worker’s salary. Currently, state employees pay 1.5 percent of the premium. The proposal would also increase co-pays and deductibles and increase employee contributions to their pension plan by between 1 percent and 2 percent. And most important, “benefits become a non-negotiable item,” wrote NorthJeresey.com columnist Charles Stile.

The first hearing on the Christie-Sweeney proposal takes place in Trenton, New Jersey’s capital, on Thursday. Some Democratic lawmakers have presented a compromise that would set a four-year expiration date on the part of the proposal that bans collective bargaining on benefits. Sweeney said he would accept the compromise; unions will continue to oppose the bill with or without the compromise.

AFT, which represents public school teachers in New Jersey, also opposes the bill. “The Democratic leadership is caving in and not supporting public employees,” read a by AFT leaders to members. “Senate President Stephen Sweeney (Democrat) and Speaker of the House Sheila Oliver (Democrat) are attempting to strike ‘deals’ with Governor Christie that remove unions’ rights to bargain health benefits.”

AFT members rallied Monday against the proposal. CWA is urging members to come to Trenton on Thursday to rally and testify against the proposal during hearings on the bill. CWA is also urging members to contact lawmakers and deliver this message:

The Sweeney-Christie health care plan destroys collective bargaining and will cost my family 5-8 percent of our income. My union is willing to negotiate an affordable health care plan that will save the State of New Jersey hundreds of millions of dollars. Are you going to stand with us or are you going to stand with Gov. Christie?

National labor leaders on June 9 wrote a letter to President Sweeney telling him that “we expect you, as a Democrat, to stand with working families and to defend collective bargaining rights. This is a vote we take very seriously.” The letter was signed by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, CWA President Larry Cohen, SEIU president Mary Kay Henry, and seven others.

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