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Organized labor losing ground in N.J. legislature

TRENTON - New Jersey's public employee labor unions, long seen as a potent political force and often depicted as an 800-pound gorilla looming over the Statehouse, are running short of friends in Trenton.

TRENTON - New Jersey's public employee labor unions, long seen as a potent political force and often depicted as an 800-pound gorilla looming over the Statehouse, are running short of friends in Trenton.

Gone is Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who regularly sided with unions. In his place stands Gov. Christie, a Republican who has sharply criticized labor's influence, leadership, and benefits.

Public labor unions have found no refuge among Democrats, their traditional allies. Democratic labor leaders in the Legislature have been among the most vocal supporters of cuts to government benefits, saying taxpayers can no longer afford the perks.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), business officer for an ironworkers' local, made cutting public employee pensions and health coverage his first priority as head of the chamber. Fellow Democrats, sensing unease with high taxes and public resentment toward government workers' benefits, joined behind him and the governor.

Even Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), president of the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO, rose to speak in favor of a series of pension and benefit cuts that won overwhelming support in the Senate and Assembly and were signed into law last month. More than three of every four lawmakers voted for the measures. Both the Senate and Assembly are controlled by Democrats.

"People in the labor movement feel like Democrats are abandoning their friends, are being intimidated by the governor's attack on public workers, and are failing to articulate a clear defense of the workers who provide the education for our kids and the services that the people of the state depend on," said Robert Master, the Communications Workers of America's regional political director. "It's very disappointing."

He raised the possibility of unions' fielding their own candidates in next year's elections.

At a hearing on the benefit proposals, Bill Lavin, president of the state Firemen's Mutual Benevolent Association, told lawmakers he was "disgusted."

"Normally I say it's an honor to speak before this body," he told the Assembly Appropriations Committee. "I don't feel that way today."

He said he understood that Republicans would side with their new leader but sharply criticized the Legislature's majority Democrats. "Because we have a new king in town, our Democratic friends tuck and run," Lavin said.

He defended teachers as "honorable" and fired back at Christie, who has criticized the teachers unions' use of dues for political fights.

"What business of [his is] that? It's not different than the amount of cheeseburgers that he eats in a week, for crying out loud," Lavin said.

In recent years, the unions representing teachers, state workers, police, and firefighters ground down the most robust attempts to trim benefits. This time, the best they could do was slow the process, delaying a final vote by roughly six hours and winning a relatively minor amendment. The bills cruised to approval six weeks after they were introduced. Christie signed them within an hour of the final votes.

Compare that with 2001, when lawmakers from both parties, hoping to curry favor in an election year, rushed to put their names on a bill to boost pension payments; and 2007, when Corzine gutted several proposed cuts; and 2008, when another attempt at cuts was slowed and weakened by a standoff between Democrats.

The benefit changes approved last month include rolling back that 2001 pension increase; requiring all public workers to pay 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their health-care premiums; tightening requirements to qualify for public pensions and health coverage; limiting pension accrual to one job per person per year; and capping at $15,000 the amount that workers can receive for accumulated sick days.

Christie and Sweeney and other Democrats have said public pensions and health care were driving up the cost of local government - and therefore property taxes - and had outstripped the private benefits most citizens enjoy.

Christie has called for even more steps, including slashing the pension credits earned by all public employees in future years. He is pressuring teachers to freeze their salaries for the year, saying it would help offset the $819 million in cuts to state education aid.

Sweeney backed Christie on the plan, saying that if local teachers unions did not accept a pay freeze, their fellow members faced layoffs. He has also backed the idea of requiring newly hired government workers to live in New Jersey.

Master, of the CWA, said public-sector workers had become an easy target amid the unease stirred by a struggling economy.

"It's so much easier to point the finger at the person next door who has some health-care coverage and a modest retirement and say, 'Hah, that's the problem,' not the people on Wall Street who brought down the economy," Master said. "The Democratic Party ought to be saying that the people at the top ought to be held accountable, not the people at the bottom who are struggling with everybody else."

The public, however, has joined in the criticism, according to surveys. A Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind poll released in early March found strong support among residents for making public employees pay for some of their health-care benefits.

Master said state workers in recent years agreed to raise their retirement age to 62 from 55, take 10 unpaid furlough days, increase their pension contributions, and contribute 1.5 percent of their pay toward their health benefits.

After years of giving heavily to Democratic campaigns in New Jersey, Master said, "the checkbook is closed."

He said the CWA would decide how to proceed after the rest of this legislative session.

"Political alliances come and go, and you work with people who share your values, but certainly you don't back down on your values just because somebody lets you down," said New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Baker.

He said labor's strength came not from political allies, but from its membership.

Sweeney dismissed the idea of a Democratic split from labor. He said he and other Democrats had supported many union priorities, notably pushing through a paid-family-leave bill in 2008.

He said public benefits needed to be brought in line with the private sector's, adding that ironworkers in his union paid for 100 percent of their health coverage.

If unions abandon Democrats over these reforms, Sweeney said, the groups will not carry much weight.

"If you're going to abandon your friends over a disagreement, and it's one disagreement? So be it," Sweeney said.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), chairman of the Democratic State Committee, played down the idea of losing support from a key piece of the Democratic base.

"We understand as Democrats the needs of the middle-class working men and women that many of these labor organizations represent," he said.