ATLANTIC CITY — Days after the city ran out of cash last week, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian and members of the city council made their case against a state takeover of the beleaguered gambling capital alongside labor leadership Tuesday. Following an A.F.L.-C.I.O. march from Caesars into city council chambers where union members chanted “Christie got to go,” Guardian characterized the takeover effort as the governor lighting on public workers as a scapegoat for the city’s massive $102 million deficit.
“We need to cut budgets in the city and we have, but we haven’t done it alone. We’ve done it by working through collective bargaining,” Guardian said from the podium. “All of us were elected. We chose to be here, whether we’re at the state level, the county level, or the municipality level. But we need to be diplomats coming to the table to work to solid solutions. And those solid solutions are not taking it out on the guy that’s making $22,000 picking up trash.”
The takeover would allow the state to change or break city workers’ union contracts. It would also let the state sell or reconsolidate city assets like the Municipal Utilities Authority, which controls the city’s water. Christie has called for privatization of the authority to be on the table, and intimated that trash collection could follow. The governor has said that he will not entertain any alternative proposals.
“If the city was a great employer, you guys would not be paying union dues,” Guardian continued. “You wouldn’t have to. But that’s not the case.”
City Council President Marty Small, wearing an AFSCME t-shirt, said that members of the legislature were colluding with the governor to undermine unions. Councilmen Kaleem Shabazz and Moisse Delgado joined him in calling for any emergency legislation to leave existing contracts in place.
“They want the MUA. They want to privatize the trash collection. They’re looking for ways to just gut everything, they want to come in here with no track record of doing anything right and use Atlantic City as the guinea pig, and we’re not having it,” Small said. “You have people in the state legislature, and I don’t think we have to call names, that claim to be pro-union but they’re actually just saying something else.”
Democratic state Senator Jim Whelan (D-2) reluctantly voted for the takeover after a PILOT bill he helped negotiate became part of the legislation and the city veered toward default, and Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-2) has expressed similarly unenthusiastic support for moving on the bill. Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-2), who voted for an alternative takeover bill more favorable to unions in committee last week, was scheduled to appear at Tuesday’s rally but received praise from local officials in his absence.
While representatives of advocacy groups Food and Water Watch and the NAACP argued against the sale or monetization of the MUA and the constitutionality of the takeover respectively, Atlantic County Freeholder Ernest Coursey laid some of the blame at Whelan’s feet. TJ Moynihan of the Atlantic City PBA Local 24 listed Brown as an ally of the unions as he thanked the assemblyman, Guardian and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-32) for pushing the alternative bill, which would introduce two years of additional benchmarks before union contracts are up for grabs.
“If they do it to Atlantic City they’ll do it to anybody,” freeholder Coursey said. “Let Christie know, let Sweeney know, let Whelan know that we’re about good work. We’re not coming down.”