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Christie lambastes paid union leave, then OKs deal that includes it

TRENTON - Inside the Statehouse on Wednesday, Gov. Christie's office formulated a scathing response to revelations that millions of tax dollars pay for government employees to do work for their unions.

TRENTON - Inside the Statehouse on Wednesday, Gov. Christie's office formulated a scathing response to revelations that millions of tax dollars pay for government employees to do work for their unions.

Meanwhile, across the street, leaders of the state's largest union were reviewing a tentative contract agreement, OKd by Christie, that continues the very same practice: paying workers to do the union's work. In fact, in the first year of the new contract, there is to be more of that than before.

The agreement belies the statement Wednesday from Christie's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, who said the findings by the State Commission of Investigation shed light on an "egregious practice and abuse of taxpayer dollars" that Christie has railed against since he took office.

Drewniak added: "This shady, often-hidden public subsidy of union leave from paid public employment costs us all millions every year and must end. It's just another rip-off of the taxpayer."

Asked Friday how this jibed with the new contract, Drewniak said his statement referred to the totality of the report's findings, including revelations that some union officers were on paid leave for decades and taxpayers sometimes ponied up for union officers' cars and computers.

Regardless, Christie's office last week found itself agreeing to paid leave even as it was lambasting paid leave. The moment illustrated the tricky balance and frustrating limitations for a governor in a labor-friendly state who's worked his way to the short list for the Republican vice presidential nomination in part by taking on public unions.

The reality is that even Christie, with his tough-guy persona, sometimes has to hold his nose and sign on the dotted line. Conservatives relish his fighting words for the unions, but he can't always draw blood.

Fortunately for him, the fine print of Article 25 in the Communications Workers of America contract will not be read by most voters around the country. They're more likely to see his 2010 town-hall exchange with a teacher, in which he cites teachers' unions' unwillingness to take a pay freeze in order to avoid layoffs (1.1 million views, and counting).

The fine print in the contract is this: Though the total days of paid leave for union officials are reduced from 835 to 760, each shop steward gets a state-paid day off - to attend training sessions on the new contract language.

So, while Drewniak said "we are the first administration that anyone recalls to bargain down the amount of paid union leave," the state will probably end up paying for about the same amount of leave time over the four-year life of the contract.

But Drewniak said that in reality, training days were there all along - as an unofficial "freebie" in addition to the 835 leave days. Now, at least, the training time is in writing. "We just wanted transparency," Drewniak said.

The contract, retroactive to the last one's 2011 expiration, is otherwise stingy: No raises for two years, with a 1 percent increase in 2013 and a 1.75 percent boost in 2014. The 35,000 members will vote on the deal over the next few weeks.

On Friday the Christie administration announced ratification of another agreement, with the union for corrections and parole officers. That contract calls for no salary increases in the first three years - and a 28 percent cut in paid union leave.

Christie has honed his reputation by targeting the kinds of public employee benefits that don't exist in the private sector. He shepherded historic overhaul of pension and health benefits through the Democratic Legislature, which meant steep cuts for employees. And he has seized on each revelation of alleged union abuses, weaving such anecdotes into his town-hall meetings.

Take clothing: Last year, the state comptroller reported that New Jersey spent more than $3 million annually on clothing allowances - for white-collar workers who don't wear uniforms.

In apparent response to those findings, the proposed CWA contract guarantees a 20 percent cut in the number of employees with clothing allowances. Those who don't need uniforms on the job will no longer get money for uniforms they don't need.

"This whole collective-bargaining stuff has been such a great education for me," Christie said after the report on clothing allowances. "You should see all the crap they've got. . . . It's unbelievable. Unbelievable."

Some of that crap is also, apparently, indispensable.