Union: The time to negotiate is now

New Jersey AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech called on the administration to begin contract negotiations with public workers now, rather than later in the year as is the governor’s plan.

According to Wowkanech, the negotiations should begin before the legislature has time to act on reforms to public sector health benefits currently being pushed by Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“The backbone of labor-management relations in both the private and public sectors, regardless of what trade or sector you’re in, has been the right to collectively bargain wages, hours and working conditions,” said Wowkanech whose union represents about one million members. “We recognize as trade unionists, as taxpayers and as working families the need to control health care costs. We know that our unions are ready, willing and able to sit down and negotiate in good faith and in a responsible way. With state employee contracts up for renewal in July, that process should be getting underway now.”

On Monday, Sweeney unveiled a bill that would require public employees to kick in a much larger portion of the cost of their health benefits, requiring a contribution based on a percentage of the cost of the premium, rather than a percentage of overall premiums.  The change would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars within seven years.

But it’s unlikely Wowkanech’s members will have any shot at a negotiated answer to health benefits. 

“They don’t have any problem with legislation when it bestows benefits in their favor,” said Michael Drewniak, spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie.  “The inconsistency is remarkable. They don’t complain when legislation gives them something but here we are trying to rein in some benefits and they complain.”

Union members are no strangers to legislated benefits including 2001 legislation sponsored by former Republican state Sen. Peter Inverso (R-14) of Hamilton that boosted retirement benefits for public employees and teachers by 9 percent.

Christie has called that law a bi-partisan mistake that has cost the state millions and was eventually responsible for a recent settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission over misleading bond statements. 

Union: The time to negotiate is now