NJEA: Betrayed, Bothered, and Bewildered

The big news today is that the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in a 9-4 vote released legislation that would increase public employee contributions to health care premiums from 1.5% to between 3.5%-35% of the premium. Higher-paid employees would contribute more and lower-paid employees would contribute less. Pension contributions would also go up by a percentage point or two, and the increases would be phased in over a few years.

The bill now goes to the Assembly Budget Committee on Monday, and then to the full Senate on Thursday.

It’s unclear whether Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver’s proposal to have the legislation sunset after four years is still a go.

Amidst the Senate deliberations yesterday, public worker unions, including NJEA, held a smaller-than-expected rally; the subsequent news reports and editorials in today’s papers largely express astonishment at the loss of power of collective bargaining units. Here’s a sampling:

Vince Giordano, NJEA Executive Director, sounded both bewildered and threatening in NJ Spotlight:
The NJEA and other unions will find it hard to back Democrats who voted to take away collective bargaining rights. Why Democrats would think it is in their advantage to try to out-Christie Christie makes no sense to me.
Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey State Firemen’s Mutual Benevolent Association, tried on a Dirty Harry persona with the Star-Ledger: "If this bill passes, the only thing that sunsets will be the Democratic Party. "

Charles Stile in The Record interviewed a shop steward, Bill Perry. Writes Stile,
Perry, a die-hard labor guy, was reflective and realistic. Sure, his brothers and sisters took a defiant stand and declared war on the "Christie Democrat" traitors who abandoned their cause, but in truth, the once-powerful and feared public labor unions are on the brink of a political Waterloo, Perry acknowledged.
Stile concludes,
Union leaders once strode the hallways with a polite, but cocksure manner, knowing their phone calls would be returned, their bills amended, their concerns accommodated. Now they are reeling in a rear-guard retreat, scrambling to find their footing in the rapidly changing political landscape. And worse, they can no longer turn to the legislative leadership for redress.
Tom Moran in the Star-Ledger eulogizes,
Mark this as the day that the spell was broken, the day that the public worker unions finally lost their stranglehold on the Legislature, the day that Democrats ginned up the courage to confront the most important special interest group in their coalition.

Union leaders were in a daze, like jilted lovers who couldn’t believe the breakup was actually happening.
Moran adds, "the unions didn’t seem to get it. At the rally, they sang songs about the working class and the rich, as if they were coal miners seeking out a meager wage, as if middle-class taxpayers were the greedy mine owners. "Have we dealt with this situation well?" asked Vince Giordano, the political operative for the state’s teachers union. "Yes, without question."

Charles Doblin of The Record debates the NJEA's tin-earred attack ads:
The New Jersey Education Association is desperate. It has long been able to do what it wants because it controlled public officials. It is fast becoming irrelevant. Key Democrats are no longer concerned about union support. When the moon is eclipsed, tides do strange things.
And on the passage of the pension and benefits reform bill through the Senate committee, "This was about power. And the NJEA is flat out of puppets and power."

NJEA, don't despair; the dirges are premature, and the animus towards public worker unions will fade. You still have pocketfuls of political chits to cash in and plenty of allies. But Giordano's bravado and NJEA's rapid response team (now running a "Wisconsin Comes to NJ" ad) only prolongs the union flaccidity. Choruses of "We Shall Overcome" and "There Once Was A Union Maid" don't endear the public to you. Teachers are not coal miners; they're professionals, and they deserve professional leadership.

An example: both PolitickerNJ and the Courier-Post are reporting that union executives passed up a chance to modify the bill. From Jane Roh:
A State House source with direct knowledge of negotiations that produced last night’s pension and health benefits reform deal confirmed what many of us have been hearing all day: public employee unions rejected a compromise that would have ensured no employee paid more than 3 percent of salary toward health insurance.

That ceiling would have applied to employees across the board, regardless of income, the source said.

But, “the unions wanted full control of everything.”
Savvy union executives would have grabbed such a deal, but NJEA's leaders are awash in indignation and self-righteousness. Today's headlines could have contained encomiums to the diplomacy and legislative brilliance of leaders who protected members from contributions to health premiums of up to 35% (for the highest-paid administrators). Instead the public today is reading about the CWA spokesman, Christopher Shelton, who called Gov. Christie a Nazi and Sen. Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Oliver “Adolph Christie’s generals.”

Right now the lack of union leadership and its inability to craft a compromise is more damaging than an extra percentage point in pension contributions.