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New Jersey State Workers Try to Replicate Wisconsin Protests

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FILE: In this May, 2, 2011, photo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney discuss Supreme Court vacancies. They are now working together on health benefits contributions from state workers. (AP2011)

TRENTON, N.J. -- Public worker unions will flex some muscle in New Jersey as the Legislature hears a bill to take employee health benefits off the bargaining table.

The state teachers union, police and firefighters, CWA and AFL-CIO plan to send protesters to a workers' rights rally at the Statehouse on Thursday.

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 rally comes the morning after Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, announced an agreement on the bill with Democrats who lead the Senate and Assembly.

"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 Wednesday night 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."

Details of the agreement weren't immediately released.

The trio has been working on legislation that would require 500,000 public workers to shoulder a larger share of their health insurance premiums and pay more into their pension fund.

The retirement systems are underfunded by a combined $110 billion.

New Jersey is among several states where Republican governors have moved to restrict collective bargaining.

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 that 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.