Huffpost Politics

New Jersey Union Bill: Workers Protest Cuts To Benefits, Collective Bargaining Rights

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NEW JERSEY UNIONS PROTESTS HEATH CARE
A man wears a cheese-wedge-hat as he pumps his fist in the air outside New Jersey's Statehouse in Trenton, N.J., Friday, Feb. 25, 2011, while people wave signs and shout as labor unions and supporters rally in support of Wisconsin workers locked in a battle over collective bargaining rights. (AP Photo) | AP File

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) -- Hundreds are rallying at the state capital to protest legislation being considered that calls for New Jersey government employees to pay more for health care and contribute more to their pensions outside of collective bargaining.

Union workers and supporters are gathering in Trenton, and busloads more are backed up along a highway heading to the Statehouse.

Two large television screens flashed pictures of union workers holding signs that read in bloody red letters: pension betrayal. Nearby, stood a 10-foot inflatable rat.

Jersey City police officer Mark Razzoli on Thursday called Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver "a sellout" for agreeing to the deal, which he says was nothing short of union busting.

Razzoli, who says he worked at ground zero on 9/11, called the deal disgraceful to those first-responders and blamed politicians for raiding pension funds in flush years.

Late Wednesday, Republican Gov. Chris Christie announced an agreement on the bill with Democrats who lead the Senate and Assembly.

The unions want health benefits to continue to be negotiated, not legislated. Many Democrats agree. The bill is likely to move through the Legislature without the support of a majority of Democrats who control both houses, a rare occurrence.

"The Senate budget committee will hear the legislation we have agreed upon and I am confident the bill will pass, move on to Assembly Budget Committee, then a full vote by the full Assembly," Christie said at a business forum in Princeton.

"In the meantime, all five of us (he and legislative leaders of both parties) have decided that we can save the partisanship for November. We can save the useless bickering for the election. We can save the excuses and the finger-pointing for then. It's our job to lead and to get things done."

Efforts to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees are also being fought in several other states.

In Wisconsin, state employees will start paying more for their health care and pension benefits in late August, but a coalition of unions filed a new lawsuit Wednesday against the GOP-supported plan, which strips away collective bargaining rights from most public workers.

The plan prohibits workers from collectively bargaining over anything except base pay increases no greater than inflation. Local police, firefighters and state patrol are exempt. It also requires workers to pay 12 percent of their health insurance costs and 5.8 percent of their pension costs, which amount to an 8 percent pay cut on average.

A new law signed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich in March limits bargaining by public employee unions, affecting about 350,000 police, firefighters, teachers and other public workers. The Ohio law has not yet gone into effect and opponents are collecting signatures in an effort to put the issue on the November ballot.

In Michigan, the Republican state Senate has passed and sent to the House measures to require most public employees to cover at least 20 percent of the cost of buying their health insurance coverage, with some flexibility for local bargaining units. Collective-bargaining changes seemed to be a harder sell in New Jersey, where Democrats control the Legislature and all 120 legislators are up for re-election in November.

The New Jersey bill would legislate premium-sharing for health care and require 500,000 public workers to pay a higher percentage of their salary into their pension fund. Both retirement systems - pensions and health care - are underfunded by a combined $110 billion.

The average New Jersey public worker earning $60,000 now contributes $900 toward health care, or 1.5 percent of their salary, regardless of their plan. Under a new tiered system, that same worker could pay $2,056 (3.4 percent of salary) a year for single coverage and $3,230 (5.4 percent of salary) for a family plan.

The Communications Workers of America criticized the new benefits contribution grid as unrealistic because it doesn't take inevitable health care cost increases into account.

The bill sponsor, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, said it's unrealistic to expect taxpayers to continue to fund soaring health care costs for public workers.

A survey of public and private employers by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation last year found that workers with employer-sponsored health plans on average paid 19 percent of the premium for single coverage and 30 percent for family coverage. Those in state and local government paid the lowest percentage - on average 9 percent of the premium for single coverage and 25 percent for family, the survey found.

The full Senate is scheduled to vote next week.

The panel heard more than four hours of testimony Thursday, mostly from union leaders urging Democratic legislators to reject the measure. The vote was split 4-4 among Democrats.

More than 2,000 protested outside the Statehouse

The bill legislates health care changes that are typically bargained. It bases contributions to health benefits on employee income. Pension contributions would also rise.

The day brought an ugly showdown at the New Jersey capitol, as union workers heckled the Democrat who sponsored the bill and picketed outside. Two dozen union workers were arrested inside the hearing room after they stood up, locked arms and chanted "Kill the bill!" They were issued disorderly persons summonses.

Supporters of the legislation, including Republican Gov. Chris Christie, say the bill is needed to shore up the state's pension and retirement health care systems, which are underfunded by a combined $110 billion.

Unions want health benefits to continue to be negotiated, not legislated. Many Democrats agree.

Christie said public employees in New Jersey will eventually appreciate a deal he struck with Democratic leaders in the Legislature to overhaul both systems.

Speaking at the New Jersey Association of Counties in Atlantic City on Thursday, Christie said the overhaul is the key to slowing property tax hikes in the state. Christie said the bipartisan compromise would become a national model for addressing rising costs.

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Associated Press writer Beth DeFalco and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.