TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey legislation requiring a half-million public workers to shoulder a larger portion of their pension and health benefits costs and restricting collective bargaining over health care picked up steam this week, despite howls of protest from organized labor and backroom infighting that splintered the state's Democratic Party.
A Senate budget panel advanced the employee benefits bill Thursday as 3,500 union workers protested outside the Statehouse, setting up a potential showdown next week on the Senate floor.
"I view this as union busting," said Jersey City police officer Mark Razzoli, who was among those gathered at the Capitol. "Not that long ago we were heroes, you know. I was at ground zero, as many other people were. It is disgraceful what is going on here."
Democrats who control the Legislature reached agreement with Gov. Chris Christie on the legislation this week, after the Republican governor agreed to allow the measure to expire after four years. Democratic leaders now expect to muscle the bill through the Legislature with help from the Republican minority but without a majority of their own party in either house. The committee vote was 9-4; Democrats on the panel were split 4-4.
Labor leaders took turns beating up on Democrats throughout the hearing, accusing their usual allies of attempting to destroy collective bargaining.
Two dozen union workers were arrested after they stood up, locked arms and chanted "Kill the bill!" The demonstrators, including the head of the state's AFL-CIO, were escorted from the room by uniformed state troopers and issued disorderly persons summonses. Earlier, Senate President Stephen Sweeney was heckled and jeered as he described the bill he's sponsoring. Sweeney is an organizer with the ironworkers union.
"Real Democrats, not Chris Christie Democrats, would have put together their own plan and fight for it — a plan that addresses taxpayers needs while respecting the fundamental rights of workers," Bob Master, political director of the Communications Workers of America, the largest state worker union with 55,000 state and local members, said to rousing applause. "Real Democrats would kill this bill because workers' rights are human rights."
Other labor leaders urged that the bill be split so separate votes could be taken on pensions and health care. Sweeney and Christie have refused.
There is broad agreement on the need to raise pension contributions to shore up a system that is $54 billion shy of its eventual liabilities. The public employee health care system is underfunded by $67 billion.
Christie said Thursday that public employees in New Jersey eventually would thank him for saving their pensions. He said the overhaul is key to slowing the growth of property tax hikes and predicted the bipartisan compromise would become a national model for addressing rising retiree costs.
New Jersey isn't the first state to try and limit collective bargaining rights of public employees.
In Wisconsin, state employees will start paying more for health and pension benefits in late August. A coalition of unions has sued to stop the GOP-supported plan, which strips collective bargaining rights from most public workers.
In Ohio, a law signed by Gov. John Kasich in March limits bargaining by public employee unions representing about 350,000 police, firefighters, teachers and other public workers. The Ohio law has not yet gone into effect and opponents are collecting signatures to try and get the issue on the November ballot.
And in Michigan, the Republican state Senate has passed measures to require most public employees to cover at least 20 percent of the cost of buying their health insurance coverage, with some flexibility for local bargaining units.
New Jersey's proposal would affect 500,000 public school teachers, police and firefighters, state police, judges, and state, county and local government workers. It sets up a new tiered system for health insurance premium cost sharing based on income, and increases workers' pension contributions by at least 1.5 percent of salary. Retirees would continue to receive free health benefits; current workers with at least 20 years of service would also get free health care in retirement.
For the average New Jersey public worker — making $60,000 and contributing $900 toward health care — the yearly cost would jump to $2,056 for single coverage or $3,230 for a family plan after a four-year phase-in.
The CWA rejected an 11th-hour offer for a low-cost health plan that would have cost workers a maximum 3 percent of salary.
A survey of public and private employers by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation last year found that workers with employer-sponsored health plans on average paid 19 percent of the premium for single coverage and 30 percent for family coverage. Those in state and local government paid the lowest percentage — on average 9 percent of the premium for single coverage and 25 percent for family.
The bill also raises the retirement to 65, from 62, for new hires, and eliminates automatic cost-of-living increases for retirees receiving a pension.
Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Atlantic City and Beth DeFalco and Josh Lederman in Trenton contributed to this report.