Offering a four-year health care rework, CWA is rebuffed at negotiating table

TRENTON – Officials for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union said Thursday they were told to take their health care concession package and put it back in their pocket by the front office.

The state’s biggest public sector union sat down with staff for Gov. Chris Christie last week, but union officials said Thursday at a press conference that when they offered concessions, they were told to wait until the Legislature considers a health care reform bill that is still being hammered out.

“He’s not negotiating anything at all on a key and critical issue,” said New Jersey CWA director Hetty Rosenstein, not even with the union taking a compromising position from the start, albeit an unfamiliar one. “You don’t come in and put money on the table.”

“It’s a huge shift for us to come in and make an offer like this,” Rosenstein said. “It’s a shift for our members. It’s a lot of money.”

“We never come and bargain in the press,” she said, but the first sit-down wave-off by the front office left them little choice.

According to the union director, Christie’s team said, “Unless the Legislature is not going to act, we’re not going to bargain with you (over health care).”

Christie took a swipe at the union in Newark this morning, calling their attempts to negotiate in public “whining and moaning and complaining” because they are uncomfortable with the confrontational governor sitting across the proverbial table.

CWA political director Bob Master said, “I don’t think this could be characterized as a ‘whining’ proposal,” but rather it’s “a very serious effort” by the union to find savings for the state while recognizing the need for adjustments to the system.

But the system, the union reps said, only works when health care benefits are in play at the negotiating table.

“He is trying to end collective bargaining,” Master said, by ending discussion over the “most important issue.”

Their plan calls for a minimal hike in contributions in the short term, and a four-year ramp-up that they say will net $148 million in the peak year, 2014.

In year one, the contributions wouldn’t change from the currently mandated 1.5 percent of salary, but the co-pay will increase to $20, which the union said amounts to a 1 percent premium saving.

The total savings in year one is roughly $16.14 million, according to calculations made with CWA figures.

In year two, workers will pay 2 percent of the plan premium in addition to the 1.5 percent of salary, and plan choices will be reconfigured.

In year three, workers will pay 3 percent of the plan premium in addition to the 1.5 percent of salary, and a wellness incentive plan will be introduced.

In year four, the final year of the rollout, workers will pay 5 percent of the plan premium in addition to the 1.5 percent of salary.

The CWA presented the existing 1.5 percent of pay contribution requirement as part of their savings – claiming a total cost reduction of 22.3 percent, or $240 million in year four – although the contribution (being calculated as 8.5 percent of premium) is already in place.

Using reconfigured CWA estimates excluding existing contribution requirements, the fourth year savings would net roughly $148 million from the more than 40,000 CWA state workers.

“The governor has said that he’s not interested,” Rosenstein said.

The plan doesn’t include the 15,000 or so local CWA workers, but the locals are expected to follow the general lead of the state workers union as local negotiations resume.

For now, Master said the health care reform bill, S2718, drafted by state Sen. President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), of West Deptford, has put the kibosh on that.

“Local governments are looking to Trenton,” Master said, watching the bill and ending all negotiations with CWA locals across the state. Local bargaining (is) being shut down by the prospect of this legislation.”

“It would effectively make collective bargaining for health care…illegal,” Master said, even when trying to lower costs.

Another disagreement with the bill – other than the logistics of contribution increases – is the moratorium put on local governments entering into the state health care system.

“We think that’s a mistake,” Master said. “You’re spreading the risk around (under the state plan). In other states across the country, they’re going the opposite way.”

Another issue they discussed was the possibility of a statewide collective bargaining process. “We think there’s a lot of interest in that,” Rosenstein said.

She said 10 percent of the state’s population is represented by a public sector union at the bargaining table. They should all sit down together with state and local officials and “figure out how to have the best bang for the buck, and what’s fair.”

The Sweeney bill doesn’t include retired state employees in the contribution hikes, although the governor is in favor of including them.

The CWA plan doesn’t include them. “We can’t bargain for retirees,” Rosenstein said. “It’s a separate discussion.”

The governor is banking on $323 million from the health care reform in the FY2012 budget, and he’s tied the homestead tax credits to the reform enactment.

“It’s completely cynical,” Master said. “He could quadruple the property tax relief if he restored the millionaire’s tax,” rather than pitting middle-class workers verses middle-class homeowners.

Rosenstein said the union will sit down again on March 22 and, “We’ll continue to bargain about whatever we can.”