While everyone is watching the donnybrook in Wisconsin, New Jersey’s largest public-employee union finds itself opposed to an unusual pair of legislative allies, including the Democratic Senate President, over a similar budget issue.
Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-3-Salem/Cumberland/Gloucester) and Senator Jennifer Beck (R-12-Monmouth/Mercer) are the primary sponsors of a bill (S2718) that would force State employees to pay a much higher portion (up to 30 percent on a sliding scale) of the premium for their health-care insurance. (They currently pay 1.5 percent of salary.) The bill also sets new criteria for eligility for health-care coverage.
It is the intent of the sponsor that the provisions of this bill will help the State and local unit employers to control the cost of public employee health benefits, which are paid for by State and local taxpayers.
Sweeney earned a reputation last year for recognition that current pension and health-benefits levels were unsustainable, and willingness to work with Governor Chris Christie to bring these under control. The most remarkable event concerning this bill is that Sweeney wrote it, by all accounts, on his own initiative. But his attitude should be no surprise: he has previously said that he comes from a private-sector union (“I’m an ironworker by trade.”) and finds that public-sector unions have asked for far too much in recent years. More recently, he said:
I understand people being emotional, but we really have to be fair with people. We’ve got to be fair with taxpayers.
The Communications Workers of America is furious with Sweeney, and plans to protest against his bill on Thursday. They say that the bill is a direct threat to collective bargaining. What this bill would actually do is to take the health-care benefit protection off the bargaining table. It would not actually speak to collective bargaiing over work rules, which is what the hotly contested Wisconsin bill would do. (And in fact, federal workers do not have collective-bargaining rights of any kind, not since the presidency of James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.)
Bill Lavin, speaking for the State firefighters’ union, said this:
It’s totally unacceptable. I think if that were to pass, it will guarantee that the Democrats will lose the majority. We’re shocked that Steve Sweeney, who calls himself a Democrat, would act in this manner … He’s rolled over for the governor in every instance.
The irony of that statement, namely that a Republican majority would be even less friendly to public-employee unions than successive Democrat majorities have been, seems to be lost on Lavin. But this statement by Sweeney, protesting such attitudes, also speaks volumes:
I’m the guy that did paid family leave. I’m the one that did the minimum wage (increase). I’m absolutely pro-worker.
How soon people forget.
The governor’s office said that they had no problem with Senator Beck signing on as a fellow primary sponsor. This could indicate that Christie would be willing to sign the bill if it reaches him without substantial change.
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