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New Jersey public workers in eye of benefit-cut storm

Within 15 minutes, Gov. Christie had a crowd of about 400 applauding as he talked about a "dumb" pension hike and "Cadillac" health care for public workers.

Within 15 minutes, Gov. Christie had a crowd of about 400 applauding as he talked about a "dumb" pension hike and "Cadillac" health care for public workers.

He noted again and again that those were benefits many in the group didn't have but were financing with their taxes in a state on the brink.

As potent as his comments were for the group, his words were directed mostly at an audience of one: New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, who will play a pivotal role in negotiating the state's $29.4 billion budget.

On Thursday, Christie took his first town meeting since introducing his budget to West Deptford, where Sweeney lives. Part of the strategy was to show Sweeney that a working-class gathering could support the Republican governor's plans to make public employees pay more for their benefits.

But Sweeney isn't clapping with the crowd, just yet.

"I thought that was very cute on his part," Sweeney said, adding that the town-hall meetings are packed with Christie supporters who get e-mails telling them that their celebrity governor will be in town. (The governor's office says the town halls are open to all comers.)

In his budget address last Tuesday, Christie said that if the Democratic-controlled Legislature agreed to health-care concessions, he would give people earning less than $75,000 a property-tax credit - a direct appeal to middle- and working-class voters to pressure the Legislature.

Sweeney and Christie already agree that public employees should pay more for their pension and health-care benefits. They disagree on how much.

The fact, though, that they've both made proposals without negotiating with the public-employee unions has some Democrats and union leaders scratching their heads because Sweeney is a business agent for Ironworkers Local 399.

But it doesn't surprise Tom Juravich, a labor-studies professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, that a union leader and a working-class audience would seem sympathetic to cutting union compensation.

Polls show that after years of trying to survive in a down economy, the public has lost faith in the ability of institutions - including unions, corporations, and the government - to solve problems, he said.

"They are hopeless about institutions," he said, "and have decided, 'I want to go out there and get what's good for me.' The irony is if the public-sector worker gets massive wage cuts, they will get cuts."

The notion that state workers are overpaid and over-pensioned, Juravich said, is simply not true because pensions are modest. (New Jersey's Communications Workers of America retirees average $25,000 to $28,000.) And, he said, teachers are generally paid less than other workers with comparable educations.

The country is "recalibrating. We need to have a tightening of the belt, but we have to be careful," Juravich said.

Overly deep cuts could create an unproductive workforce and a dangerously deteriorated quality of government services, he said.

Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communications Workers of America, which represents 40,000 state workers, said Christie was trying to divide the middle class against itself.

"Working- and middle-class families reject these efforts to protect the wealthy, vilify public workers, and divide neighbor against neighbor," she said in a statement.

Under pressure from moves in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and other states to cut benefits and bargaining rights, public workers have been rallying with other unionists and community groups to build support for their causes.

But in New Jersey, the state Building and Construction Trades Council voted to boycott a large rally Friday to support public workers.

In a memo, the council called the rally "a veiled attempt by the state AFL-CIO to pull the building trades into a public employees dispute." Still, there were members of building-trades unions in the crowd of about 3,100.

Public-worker and building-trades unions have long-standing tensions.

Sweeney said the public workers were his friends but added, "We really are in different worlds. . . . If my health care goes up, I have a choice: I either put more of my pay into it or my next raise."

About 15 years ago, Sweeney said he told a room of retirees that their health insurance would be cut.

New Jersey state workers, he said, haven't had to make sacrifices as large as those made by others - a statement that made him sound an awful lot like the governor. State workers argue that they have taken pay freezes and furloughs and that they cover some of their benefit costs.

Christie, for his part, seems intent on channeling the mood of those tired of struggling in a tough economy.

If the Legislature doesn't give him his benefit concessions, he told his audience, "you'll know they're taking the side of special interests over you."