Christie and Labor: 5 Things the Governor-Elect Can Do

When he was growing up, Chris Christie’s folks must have taught him that when he went to a new playground, he should pick a fight with the biggest kid there to show he has grit even if he got his nose broken. During this year’s gubernatorial campaign, Chris Christie seemed to go out of his way pick fights with organized labor and he seemed to be picking fights that did not appear to need picking.

First, Christie forcefully snubbed New Jersey’s largest teachers’ union, the NJEA, by refusing to even be interviewed for their endorsement. Then, he called for mass layoffs of state workers while Governor Corzine hammered out givebacks at the bargaining table. And finally, he infuriated the building trades unions by demanding a ban on project labor agreements when they weren’t on anyone’s radar. At the time, labor was not feeling too warm and fuzzy towards Corzine due to some tense battles with his administration. However, Christie’s escalating anti-union rhetoric became a magic potion that turned Christie into labor’s nightmare and Corzine into their dream date.

As Governor-Elect, Christie may believe he has to live up to his anti-union campaign rhetoric or face a backlash from conservatives in his party. That would be a mistake. While the current union leadership may not have been able to effectively muster the get-out-the-vote strategy and bodies needed to reelect Corzine, treating the labor movement as vanquished and continuing to pick those fights will be counterproductive. New Jersey is a highly unionized, pro-labor state. There are more than one million union members here, meaning more than one million union families. Significantly, one in every four New Jersey families includes a public worker. Sixty thousand state worker union members will soon be more than potential voters. They will also be his employees. To deal with the fiscal tsunami and to make strides in education, the new Governor needs labor’s cooperation, not their ire.

In the first week after his victory, Gov-elect, Christie signaled state worker unions that he wanted givebacks and that he would be willing to declare a financial emergency to get them. While he now speaks of “tough but fair negotiations” rather than of slashing and cutting, the threat of massive layoffs remains. Last week, Christie told some in the press that he wanted an astounding and impossible $1.5 billion in givebacks from the state worker unions. That number was in addition to the $2 billion he intends to “save” by not funding the underfunded public employee pension again. Achieving those savings is impossible without a staggering number of layoffs in the tens of thousands. Now, that’s a street fight in the making.

The ugly economy is taking its toll on everyone, including union working families. Their anger is not likely to subside just because the election is over. If the economy and the job market do not improve, workers’ fury will just be redirected towards the new guy in charge. It remains to be seen whether Christie wants any allies in labor or whether he believes he doesn’t need union members to succeed as Governor to or to win reelection. He may decide that his rhetoric should become reality and he should treat unionized labor as the enemy for the next four years. It’s his call. If Christie chooses that path he politically endangers the many moderate Republican legislators who have made some good long-standing labor friends and who are up bat at the ballot box long before Christie will be.

However, if Christie and his legislative allies are imagining or desiring collaboration or support from organized labor or from union members in the months and years ahead and for future elections, there are FIVE THINGS HE MUST DO:

1) RESPECT COLLECTIVE BARGAINING

Remember “unions 101”—a contract is a contract. Collective bargaining is the cornerstone of a labor-management relationship and negotiated, good faith agreements must be honored. Yes, it’s that simple. Why would unions ever give concessions in trade for other issues or layoffs if that agreement could keep being revisited or broken?

Since his election, Christie has said that he is considering invoking the Disaster Control Act to declare a financial emergency, which would give him broad power to layoff state workers while ignoring civil service and contractual layoff rights. Christie has said he was not “bound by” the recent Corzine negotiations and that there may be no layoffs “if we can reach a fair agreement with all the parties that recognizes the pressures that the taxpayers are under and the state government is under.” Even the Star Ledger, in an editorial this week, urged Christie to “play fair” and honor the deal that Corzine made with the unions “signed in good faith at the bargaining table.” That deal included a no-layoff provision through December 2010 in exchange for furlough days and deferred wage increases.

Whether or not Christie is “bound by” Corzine’s agreement is a court fight in the making. More importantly, if Christie does not respect the collective bargaining process from the start, he will turn a playground fight into all out war during his first budget cycle. And, worse, it will haunt him in 2011 when it is his turn at the negotiating table and all trust has been long abandoned.

2) HANDS OFF PROJECT LABOR AGREEMENTS

During the campaign, Christie said he would ban project labor agreements (PLAs) calling them a “special interest giveaway” which serve no public interest. Really? Christie may as well plunge a rusty knife into the heart of proud Ironworker, Majority Leader and potential Senate President Steve Sweeney because PLA’s are the holy grail of the New Jersey building trades. It will be hard enough for Christie to work with a Democratic-controlled Senate and Assembly without making hard enemies of its leadership.

PLAs keep building trades members working. And in this frightening economy, that is critically important. A PLA is a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement that sets the terms and conditions of work for public construction projects. Unions and proponents argue, and studies show, that PLA’s promote efficiency, secures the use of highly skilled New Jersey workers, insures timely completion of large construction projects and encourage respect for fair labor standards.

One of the first things George W. Bush did when he got into office was to ban PLAs and unions hated him for it. One of the first things Barack Obama did when he became President was to repeal the Bush ban and sign an Executive Order encouraging PLAs for large federal projects. Going after PLAs in New Jersey wouldn’t be like just starting a playground fight, it would be like dissing somebody’s mom.

3) FUND THE PUBLIC WORKER PENSIONS

The idiom that ‘when you’re in a hole, stop digging’ should be the mantra applied to the giant gaping hole that is the public pension fund deficit. Rather than keep digging by failing to make the nearly $2 billion pension obligation, as he has suggested, Christie needs to find a way to start filling the hole.

The continued shortchanging of the state’s retirement funds coupled with market losses has created a pension fund crisis of mammoth proportions. A Fortune Magazine article this past May, entitled “The Public Pension Bomb” noted that in June 2008, New Jersey estimated that the pension fund had $34 billion less than it needed to meet obligations. Since then, the plan’s value has dropped from $82 billion to $56 billion. Even the people who manage the pension fund say that it is locked in a downward spiral of negative cash flow with contributions less than benefits paid out. Currently, the funds pay out $300 million to $400 million more than they take in through contributions from employees and employers. That should terrify the new Governor.

Besides skipping the pension payment, Christie has also mentioned moving all new employees into a 401K -style plan, and in effect, closing the front door to the existing pension fund. But when public workers are the only ones paying into the plan, closing that door means no new employee contributions. Ignoring the pension obligation is not an option, as the ticking gets louder. Christie must properly fund the pensions and defuse the pension bomb.

4) CREATE JOBS AND JOBS AND JOBS

Now that he’s the Gov-elect, Christie says his top priorities are the economy and education. That’s good because it was the lousy economy and lack of good jobs that made the electorate enraged enough to set a pyre for Corzine.

But what exactly does Christie intend to do about creating jobs? His first thought, massive layoffs of people in decent jobs is not a good place to start and will certainly not stimulate the economy. According to the State Department of Labor, New Jersey’s unemployment rate is up to 9.8%. Nationally, workers are facing the worst economy in 75 years and buying power is the same as it was 25 years ago. Those ingredients, mixed with fear and rage, created the cauldron brew which helped fuel Christie’s victory.

Stimulating the creation of jobs, especially good jobs with benefits that will allow for a middle class lifestyle, will be the true test of Christie’s success as far as organized labor and all citizens are concerned. Next year’s State Senate races may very well be a measure of Christie’s success or failure on this front because jobless New Jersey voters will continue be angry and surely take out their frustration again at the nearest ballot box.

 

5) REMEMBER THAT UNION MEMBERS ARE NEW JERSEY CITIZENS

Too many politicians wrongly act as if union members have some secret ID card that allows them to avoid paying the same property taxes, the same income taxes and the same prices at the grocery store for milk and bread as every other citizen of New Jersey. They don’t, in case you were actually wondering or thinking of applying for one.

Union members are middle class people and their families live a middle-class lifestyle. Union members also struggle to pay their bills, to feed their kids, to keep their households afloat, to make car payments and send kids to college. They are citizens and voters just like their next-door neighbors. Treat labor union members with the dignity and respect they deserve and they will follow that lead. And of course, never cross a picket line.

When New Jersey’s last Republican Governor, Don DiFrancesco, took office in 2001, he asked to walk through the state offices with union leaders and shop stewards to meet the employees and shake hands. Many of those workers, some with twenty plus years of service to the state, were pleasantly shocked because they had never met a Governor before. That gesture humanized him with the state workforce and sent a positive message that workers, and the services they performed, actually mattered. Times have changed and the challenges are greater but Christie needs to do the same on a much broader scale.

Labor can hope that the lyrics to many of the songs sung by Gov-elect Christie’s rock idol, Bruce Springsteen, have sunk into Christie’s subconscious and imbued him with a deep-seated respect for the dignity of working people and unions. Judging from Christie’s campaign message, that hasn’t happened. But the campaign is now over. Like a kid going to a new school, Christie gets to reinvent himself in the governorship. The Governor’s Office is his new playground perch and picking fights will not be the winning strategy.

Christie and Labor:  5 Things the Governor-Elect Can Do