Monday, July 10, 2006

State Budget - Press of AC - Green/Moriarty/Sweeney plan divides union and pols

Published in the Press of Atlantic City, Friday, June 23, 2006

Sweeney plan to cut state salaries divides N.J. unions and politicians

By PETE McALEER Statehouse Bureau, (609) 292-4935

Published: Friday, June 23, 2006
Updated: Saturday, June 24, 2006

TRENTON — From inside the Statehouse, Sen. Stephen Sweeney could see the swarm of state workers crowding State Street.

The union workers — about 5,000 of them — had arrived to demand that the state Legislature fully fund their pensions. They were even more worked up about Sweeney, a retired ironworker from Gloucester County who engineered his rise to power with the support of the building trades. Two weeks earlier, Sweeney had introduced a plan to cut state worker salaries and benefits by 15 percent.

State workers delivered their response with picket signs short on subtlety.

“Sweeney's a liar,” said one. “Sweeney lives in a glass house,” declared another. A third offered the more succinct, “Sweeney sucks.”

Sweeney, a brawny, barrel-chested man with a low-key manner, said he considered addressing the crowd.

“I thought about it, I did. But they would have shouted me down. They would have never let me explain it to them,” said Sweeney, a Democrat who represents parts of Salem, Gloucester and Cumberland counties.

Sweeney's call for state workers to come back to the bargaining table a year before their contracts expire undoubtedly will never see debate inside a committee room, but the repercussions of introducing the plan may last years. The debate already has driven a wedge through New Jersey's labor community — the building trades quickly jumped to Sweeney's defense — and its political community. Sweeney, the chairman of the state Senate Labor Committee, finds himself at significant odds with Gov. Jon S. Corzine.

“I've been getting bombs thrown at me every day,” Sweeney said.

The bombs have flown both ways. Sweeney questions whether Corzine is serious about negotiating tough with the unions when their contract ends next year. Corzine's “I'm with you” declaration at last Tuesday's state worker rally sends a bad signal, Sweeney said.

At the rally, Corzine took the stage, and although he never mentioned Sweeney by name, left little doubt about what he thought of the lawmaker's plan.

“Last time I checked, a contract was still a contract,” Corzine shouted to the crowd. “Contract negotiations are bargained at the bargaining table, not the budget table.”

Even away from rally settings, debate over the plan has hardly been subdued.

Union leaders said they were blindsided by Sweeney, who unveiled his plan by holding a news conference and then launching a Web site,

A serious request to invite the union workers back to the bargaining table, they said, should have been made behind the scenes.

Sweeney contends it's union leaders, buoyed by Corzine's support, who have been the bullies.

“They can threaten us,” Sweeney said. “They can run somebody against me in a primary. That's their right. But remember, I'm the person that for the last four years has carried the ball for labor in Trenton. The biggest mistake was telling people like me, ‘If you don't do what we say, we're going to target you for defeat.'”

Calls keep coming to Sweeney's office each day, for and against the plan. Sweeney said the calls from state workers sound mostly the same, suggesting they've been told exactly what to say by union leaders.

The Legislature appears split.

Assemblyman Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said he supports what Sweeney is trying to do.

“Frankly, my first year (as Atlantic City mayor) I walked in and said to the unions, ‘I need givebacks or there will be layoffs,'” Whelan said. “Council refused to take action on the budget, but in the end they realized I was serious. … Public employee salaries in New Jersey are above average. They're no longer paid the starvation wages they were paid in the '60s and '70s. In the meantime, costs are rising tremendously.”

State Sen. Nicholas Asselta, R-Cumberland, Cape May, Atlantic, said the state should not blame its financial crisis on state workers.

“Steve is a guy who says what he thinks and feels,” Asselta said. “I just think it's all about respecting the life of a contract and then renegotiating. The state would be in a good position in a year to go back to service unions and say this is where we are and we need help. I think they would have been agreeable to that.”

In recent days, Sweeney has placed more focus on the need for New Jersey to switch to a two-tier system that reduces benefits for new hires. That's what he talked about a few hours after the union rally when two nurses stopped him on his way to a Senate voting session.

“There hasn't been an honest dialogue about this,” Sweeney told the nurses. “I wouldn't change your pension. I'm not going after anything anybody has. I'm talking about going forward, we have to take a look at a two-tier system. We're going broke.”

The nurses appeared satisfied with the explanation. Selling the plan to two people proved more sensible than trying to sell 5,000 workers at a rally — and possibly more fruitful than selling an entire state on the plan through a news conference or Web site.

“Those nurses didn't come looking for me to thank me, but they weren't angry when we got talking,” Sweeney said. “When you explain it to them, it makes sense.”

To e-mail Pete McAleer at The Press:

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.