Governor Christie

“Bold Action” from New Jersey’s “Friends of Labor” Democrats

On Monday, June 20, 2011, the New Jersey Senate approved bill S2937. The bill increases pension costs for police officers and firefighters, requiring them to pay an additional 1.5 percent, totaling 10 percent of their salaries. This officially marks the end of what Governor Chris Christie called the “sacred trust” in his promise not to raise pension payments for New Jersey’s uniformed public employees. The bill also increases pension payments for all other NJ public employees to 7.5%, an increase of 2 percent.

The bill doubles, and in many cases triples, what public employees must pay for their health care premiums. In 2008, Democratic Governor Jon Corzine raised the retirement age from 60 to 62. This bill now raises the retirement age even further, to 65, which is a blow not only to workers looking to retire, but to young workers entering the workforce. Public employees who should be retiring soon will be occupying positions that otherwise would open up for the next generation of workers. This will have a swelling effect on the official 9.4 percent unemployment rate in NJ.

S2937 will also eliminate cost-of-living adjustments for those who are retired and the right to collectively bargain on pensions and health care benefits until “funds become stable.” In effect, this leaves public employees without basic collective bargaining rights indefinitely.

Defending the bill, New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney stated, “Problems like the pension and health care system require fundamental change from the bottom up. That kind of change comes from bold action … and bold action often flies in the face of those who are content with the status quo.” 

Chris ChristieIncredibly, Sweeney was the Financial Secretary of Iron Workers Local 399 for 10 years, and in 2008, he was appointed President of the Philadelphia and Vicinity District Council of the Iron Workers union. Running on his credentials as a “friend of labor,” he became NJ Senate President in 2010. Surely Sweeney, a Democrat and long-time labor official didn’t vote for this vicious anti-union, anti-worker bill did he? He not only voted for it, he was a key player behind it! “Bold action” indeed! New Jersey Assembly Speaker, Sheila Oliver, also a Democrat, gave it her 100% approval saying, “Inaction is just not an option for us.”

So we have to ask, given his recent actions: does labor have a friend in the Democrats? For his part, Republican Governor Christie was licking his chop: “I am encouraged by the bipartisan Senate vote today and the continued display of support for common-sense pension and health benefits reform.”

However, these attacks have also encouraged a series of protests, dubbed “The Second Battle of Trenton,” hearkening back to the famous Revolutionary War battle that was a turning point in the revolution.

The “common-sense” that Governor Christie exalts is in reality the blatantly pro-bosses justification for attacks on the pensions and health benefits of public employees. This bipartisan “pragmatism” reveals the very foundations of both the Republican and Democratic parties, neither of which represent working people, whether some of their elected officials are plucked from the labor movement or not. These parties represent the capitalists, whose system they have to defend.

This explains why the “common-sense” answers the Republicans and Democrats offer to these problems consists of placing the burden squarely on the backs of the working class. This is a far cry from the Common Sense of British-American revolutionary Thomas Paine, who believed all people have the right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”—not Cuts, Concessions, and Profits!

The economic crisis of 2008-9 led to a drop in tax revenues; the collapse of the housing bubble led to a drop in property tax income; and rising unemployment led to a drop in income tax, not to mention the effects of decades of tax breaks for the top earners and corporations. This generalization nationally affected New Jersey directly and through federal cuts to the state itself. On top of all of this, then–Governor Corzine allowed counties and municipalities to halve their pension payments in 2008. The pension and benefit funds in New Jersey weren’t ransacked by public workers, they were ransacked by the crisis of the capitalist system and the politicians that defend it!

Now the bosses are seeking to find a new normality in the changed situation: lower standards of living for working people. So why should workers bear the brunt of an economic crisis based on the unplanned and inherently unstable anarchy of the capitalist system?

Governor Christie is fond of masquerading as a defender of “tax payers” against the “evils” of public sector unions. But it’s clear that the vast majority of tax payers are workers, some of whom even happen to be members of the “insidious” public sector unions! Many on the left have proposed simply taxing the rich as the answer. This would be a step in the right direction but what is necessary is not just a small quantitative change in tax policy, but a massive change in policies all across the board—changes that Republicans and Democrats are simply unwilling and unable to deliver.

The fightback of the workers in Wisconsin is a great inspiration for the fightback here in New Jersey. The public sector unions should prepare themselves for the battles ahead. Whether or not the summer lull serves to ebb the movement against S2937, organization is a must! Teachers, bus drivers, government workers and firefighters have allies among the workers of all industries. Lunch-time protests are a good first step but this limits people’s attendance. It is necessary to tap the power of New Jersey’s unions, public and private, as well as unorganized and unemployed workers, many of whom look to the unions to take the lead.

New Jersey’s Communication Workers of America Local 1033 has already begun a series of suits against the state on the grounds that Governor Christie and his predecessors failed to make payments to the pension funds. But we have already seen what has happened in Wisconsin, where the initial overturn of Scott Walker’s anti-union bill was nixed by the state’s Supreme Court. We can’t expect lawyers and judges to do the fighting for us—at best, this approach is useful only as an auxiliary.

As it is often said in military strategy, “the best defense is a good offense.” But first and foremost, the unions, the U.S. working class’ first line of defense, need to build a force to be reckoned with. A statewide network of shop stewards and other rank-and-file representatives from all of New Jersey’s unions should be formed to coordinate the fightback. Such an organized force, which could bring New Jersey to a standstill if it organized a well-planned and coordinated general strike, could defeat S2937. In this manner, a good defense would be transformed into the best offense.

But who will defend New Jersey’s workers in the state Senate and Assembly? Robert Master, Northeast Political Director of CWA said of Stephen Sweeney: “He could have made a deal with us to save hundreds of millions of dollars, but instead he wanted to make a deal with Christie to score political points at the expense of public workers.” But we don’t need “deals” that include cuts! What we need is a political party that will fight against any and all cuts and concessions that negatively impact workers’ lives. This is why we need a party of, by and for working people, whose representatives are directly accountable, not only to the voters who elected them, but to the trade unions themselves.

We have had enough of politicians who are willing to make “deals” to help balance the crisis on the backs of workers. It’s high time that the labor movement runs its own independent candidates against the parties of big business and prepares for the building of a nation-wide labor party, based on the trade unions. Without fighting on a political front, the labor movement is fighting with one arm tied behind its back.

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