Desperate times in New Jersey

September 30, 2010

Nagesh Rao teaches at The College of New Jersey and is a member of TCNJFT Local 2364. In this article first posted at his blog LeftyProf, he looks at the looming battle for New Jersey's unions in the face of attacks from both parties.

IT IS now nearly a year since Republican Chris Christie won the gubernatorial elections, and some nine months since he took office and stepped up his predecessor's efforts to balance the budget on the backs of working people.

Christie's unapologetic anti-union stance, his publicly professed determination to cut back on "entitlements" (read: union benefits), and his shameless attempts to divide public- and private-sector workers have, in these few short months, had a devastating impact not only on the livelihoods of thousands across the state but on the ideological climate as well.

To wrap your head around this crisis, take a look at the excellent analysis and commentary by Mark Magyar, who teaches at Rutgers University's School of Labor and Management Relations. As Magyar points out, New Jersey faces a shortfall of $45.6 billion in its state pension system, and $68.9 billion in unfunded liabilities for retiree health care benefits!

Where has all this money gone? Put simply, what should have been money that was held in the public's trust has been plundered and squandered away by a combination of financial manipulation, tax cuts and giveaways, and fiscal mismanagement, by the politicians who have ruled the state for the last two decades. And while liberal commentators often lay the blame on the Republican administration of Christine Todd Whitman (1994-2001), her three Democratic successors--Jim McGreevy (2002-2004), Richard Codey (2004-2006) and Jon Corzine (2006-2009)--did little to stem the bleeding, let alone reverse course.

Newark high school students rally against sweeping cuts to public education
Newark high school students rally against sweeping cuts to public education

A bankrupt system is now setting its sights on the living standards of working people, forcing them to accept "austerity" to restore it to financial health.

Even before the Great Recession got underway, the state's unions, especially in the education sector, were being primed for concessionary contracts. In 2007, for instance, Gov. Corzine cut funding for higher education by nearly $200 million. Unions were forced to accept weak contracts, along with givebacks in the form of health care premiums amounting to 1.5 percent of wages and salaries. But in 2009, Corzine got the unions to agree to open up the contract, and accept more concessions, including furloughs and wage freezes.

NOW WE find ourselves in a deeper and deeper hole as the months go by. At present, "New Jersey's economic growth lags behind the rest of the Northeast, and its 9.7 percent jobless rate remains above the national average."

Magyar paints us a picture of the Chris Christie era thus far: "During his first eight months in office, Christie lowered pension benefits for new government workers, made deep cuts in state aid to schools and municipalities that forced thousands of layoffs, and imposed strict limits on future government spending increases."

Christie has only just begun:

Within the next 10 months, Christie is slated to negotiate a new contract with state workers, implement an ambitious privatization program, decide whether to seek mid-year layoffs of state workers once their no-layoff clause expires and propose pension and retiree health care changes that could affect the benefits of current retirees for the first time.

Christie's anti-labor stance is public knowledge; the governor himself wears it like a badge of honor. Indeed, his Transition Team's reports laid out his strategy quite clearly. Their report on "Labor and Workforce Development" stated, "Governor-elect Christie will face a potent adversary in his attempt to both reduce the number of state employees and to reduce their benefit and pay package. Public unions have been very effective in thwarting any attempt to rein in these uncontrolled costs."

Therefore, they called for hiring union-busting law firms, or what they referred to as "very talented outside employment counsel who has a proven track record to accomplish the goal at hand."

Worrying that "[a]cting too precipitously could allow the unions to drag out the issues and place the Administration in a position of appearing harsh or anti-union," they called on the governor to wait until "the timing is right," and he has gained "bipartisan support."

The report also unabashedly advocated the age-old tactic of divide and conquer, pitting public-sector workers and private-sector workers against one another: "In New Jersey it would not be advisable to lump all the unions together. We believe most non-public unions and their members will be supportive of reining in the public unions."

Other politicians are taking note, and we have Meg Whitman, Republican gubernatorial candidate all the way across in California, hailing Christie's shock-and-awe approach as a "perfect road-map" for her plans.

Needless to say, this has created nothing short of a panic among liberals and progressives. Union leaders are scrambling to mobilize their membership, and scrambling too to strengthen union structures as well.

Sadly, in the case of my union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), "strengthening the unions" has meant a statewide consolidation at the top of the bureaucracy, creating a top-heavy structure disposing of far greater monetary resources via members' dues payments (which have been increased recently to "pay" for this consolidation), but less accountable to the rank-and-file.

The current mood of anger and despair is well articulated by Bob Angelo, another Rutgers professor, who laments:

Is this the bleakest Labor Day we've ever experienced? More people are out of work than at any time since the 1930s and the Great Depression, especially in New Jersey. We haven't been able to figure out how to transition to the new economy from our base in manufacturing. And we have a governor in Chris Christie who has taken an extreme anti-labor stance in targeting public employees and their unions.

In response, New Jersey's unions, including CWA, AFSCME, AFT and others are mobilizing in a big way for the upcoming "One Nation" protest in Washington, D.C. The turnout from New Jersey will be big, if the 30,000-strong rally of teachers earlier this year in Trenton is anything to go by.

But with mid-term elections coming up, unions and unionized workers are in danger of being led back again into the waiting arms of the "lesser of two evils" yet again. Uunion members are also being bombarded with appeals to get out the vote, and to help (re-)elect Democrats to the state legislature. This, despite the undisputed fact that all the concessions thus far extracted from unions have been negotiated with a legislature that is dominated by the Democrats!

As Magyar rightly argues:

But the GOP governor's victories could not have come without the startling acquiescence of a Democratic-controlled Legislature led by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, an Ironworkers Union business representative from Gloucester County...

[D]ozens of Democratic legislators did an about-face when they saw that a volatile electorate worried about its own economic future had focused its anger on public employees who did not share their pain...

Sweeney's sponsorship of the pension reform package in February and his introduction of legislation calling for a strict cap on property taxes in June was widely viewed as a triangulation strategy to give Democrats the political cover they needed to keep control of both houses in 2011, when all 120 seats will be up for reelection.

Sweeney and fellow state Senator Donald Norcross, head of the AFL-CIO South Jersey Central Labor Council, said they were willing to take the lead on pension reform bills that limited future benefit levels for new public sector union members.

Magyar concludes: "Whatever the governor or the public employee unions do next, one thing is certain. If the past eight months are any sort of any indicator, the toughest--and loudest--fights are still to come."

If this is true, and if it is true that "the legislative fights of Christie's first eight months were just a warm-up for the more serious battles that will take place before the next budget deadline on July 1, 2011," then what we desperately need in New Jersey is the kind of broad-based, grassroots fight-back involving all sectors of workers--organized and unorganized, native-born and immigrant, union and non-union, public and private--that can only be built by an independent movement that is not tied to the coattails of the Democratic Party.

LET US recall the lessons of the fight for same-sex marriage in the state that went down to a gloomy defeat during the lame-duck session of the legislature following Corzine's loss at the polls last November.

Garden State Equality (GSE), the state's largest LGBT-rights lobbying organization spent countless hours phone-banking, lobbying and writing letters and postcards to "friendly" politicians (read: Democrats), while at the same time refusing to call for mass demonstrations and rallies until the very last minute.

As the day of the vote drew close, we were assured that our "chances" were good. After all, the lame-duck governor had promised to sign off on same-sex marriage legislation. As "chance" would have it, however, the Democrat-dominated legislature was unwilling (their apologists in the GSE would say "unable") to pass the law, and we were once again let down by these "friends" in office, as several Democrats voted with Republicans to deny equal rights to LGBT people.

There was a palpable sense of shock and outrage in the weeks that followed, but with it was also a deep demoralization and a feeling of helplessness in the face of a system that seems immovable.

If the unions, facing perhaps the biggest battle of their lives, want to avoid the same result they will have to steer a politically independent course, and declare themselves free of the obligation to waste union resources on campaigning for a party that has time and again played us like pawns on an electoral chessboard, that has repeatedly promised much in exchange for our votes but delivered little, and that has too often simply swept our demands aside in the name of "the politics of the possible."

We should no longer be surprised at the so-called "betrayals" of the Democrats in office. An honest appraisal of their speeches and programmatic statements, their election campaigns and fundraisers, and most of all, the historical record of their policies, will reveal that they are quite as much a party of the wealthy elites as their opponents. And they have been loyal and faithful to the interests of their corporate and Wall Street backers. They haven't "betrayed" anyone; it is we who have betrayed our own interests by obediently turning up every election year to put them in office.

When will we say we've had enough? We know that unions face a do-or-die moment in New Jersey. Will union leaders see this crisis as an opportunity to break new ground and launch a politically independent, grassroots effort to revitalize the labor movement?

Sadly, I think not. We thus find ourselves in the field of battle with our hands tied behind our backs.

First published at the LeftyProf blog.

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