There are a few things that political observers have been able to ascertain during Governor Chris Christie’s term thus far. One of those things is his negative view of unions and his mission of lessening their power in the state. During his first year, the chosen unions for Christie’s attacks were the state’s teachers’ unions. Cuts to education and the lost federal funds through the Race to the Top program were dominant headlines in 2010. In year two, the chosen unions look to be labor unions as health benefit costs and pension reform will certainly be highly talked about as Christie will continue to take the same tough approach as he did last year.
With that in mind, the ongoing events in Wisconsin might not resonate with much of the country; but New Jersey is certainly one of the handful of states that can learn from the events there. Well over 20,000 protesters have flooded Madison and the state capitol. At the same time, 14 Democratic state Senators are on “the loose” across the border preventing a vote from happening in the Wisconsin State Legislature.
At the heart of the protests and problems in the state: Republican Governor Scott Walker is planning to save the state money by cutting state employee benefits and enforcing strict restrictions on their collective bargaining rights and abilities. Wisconsin is projected to see a deficit of at least $30 million this year and that might only be the beginning of tough budgetary battles ahead with more looming debt in the years ahead.
Governor Walker’s decisions might be partially politically motivated due to his fiscal stances and ideologies, but they are also driven by a need to rein in costs in the state that are tied to the expenses the state deals with for unions. The latter point is what brought this matter on and New Jersey can find itself facing a similar situation as the Badger State.
Wisconsin is in a bit of unique spot due to its long history tied to unions and their early years. However, as some have quoted since last November: “Elections have consequences”. The state elected a Republican governor in Walker and tipped the State Legislature in favor of the Republicans in the state. Now, with the party in control of the executive and legislative branches; tough decisions and proposals that could negatively affect unions were certainly looming.
Until the missing 14 state Senators return, the protesters have the stage to use their sway along with the organized unions of the state to stall the legislation from being taken up and passed by Walker. One of the missing senators, Robert Jauch, points to his departure along with his colleagues to not be about the budget, but the elimation of a half century of collective bargaining law in the state. For this Examiner, that might the one part of the proposal that could use revisions and that might break open leeway for both parties and outside groups to find common ground that positively assists Wisconsin’s budget.
The collective bargaining rights is a major component in Walker’s budget and cost saving strategy. For Walker; counties, cities, and school districts must be allowed to cut the compensation of their unionized workers. But, if that were to occur it would take away all rights and abilities that government and union workers have to negotiate. Wage discussions would be the only thing on the table and that tends to not favor the union worker lately. New Jersey just passed arbitration reform late last year, for example. Reform like that handicaps the power that union members currently have in getting more benefits and pay; something that has increased the need for the current conversations.
There has been a century long slow incline of power being accumulated by union members. The purpose of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), for instance, were to give a voice to union members and lower any injustices they experienced. However, at the current time, several top officials misuse the power they have accrued over time and now see some practical initiatives by Walker in Wisconsin and Christie in New Jersey as drastic cuts to their rights and privileges.
Unions and their allies, largely in the Democratic Party, has voiced anger towards Walker for using Wisconsin’s fiscal woes to weaken the bargaining ability and clout of organized labor.
Based on reports today, it seems that New Jersey and its unions have been watching Wisconsin’s proceedings from afar, but that could change soon. The state’s largest employee unions are planning their own rally in Trenton this Friday to show support. In attendance will be the Communications Workers of America (CWA) as well as National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. Additionally, labor workers from Wisconsin will venture to the Garden State to show a sign of solidarity between the two state’s workers. Friday’s rally could be in anticipation of anything Christie might propose that could echo Walker’s agenda in Wisconsin.
As Hetty Rosenstein, CWA state director, has stated;
“We are all Wisconsin public workers this week. They’re trying to blame middle class workers for the financial mess that Wall Street caused. It’s more politics as usual and we’re ready to fight back.”
Rosenstein’s comments might speak to the feeling amongst those connected to and part of unions when it comes to what states like New Jersey and Wisconsin might do in terms of reforming the way unions are made up and the way they interact with the state. Most importantly, though, are benefits and other “perks” of the job of being a union member are on the radar of those protesting in Wisconsin and those expected to gather in Trenton later this week. If one state moves forward with a new agenda, other states will be encouraged to do the same. This is beyond a political manuever, as this matter at its core is a growing fiscal matter. Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has already spoken about making similar reforms and decisions as Walker and Christie have proposed.
Governor Christie, not too surprisingly, is standing by Walker and as someone who has challenged unions; Walker can be a fellow governor to stand alongside and work with to fix state budgets while reforming the role and power unions currently have. That power and role in states like WIsconsin or New Jersey are starting to handicap state budgets. Christie, for his part, can certainly relate to the pressures facing Walker.
Christie will announce his new budget Tuesday and later this year he will need to address collective bargaining in the state as contracts expire in June.
The ongoing events in Wisconsin look to be about to trickle into New Jersey and now it will not only be something for New Jerseyans to watch from afar, but experience up close in a few days.