Acknowledging the bitterness out there in the rows of delegates in the events center of the Borgata Casino Wednesday, Monsignor John Gilchrist told the union they have to be a union, and forgive.
"The last thing that dies is the Irish grudge," said the old Newark Archdiocese priest. "Join together. I’ve been with the unions since 1962. You join together, and 20 years from now people will sit in those chairs and they will bless you for what you’ve done and what you’ve been."
The delegates, who represent one million union workers statewide, emptied their seats in a standing ovation.
But some of the bitterness lingered.
Some delegates in the audience didn’t want to hear turn the other cheek talk. They felt they had to sit there last year and listen to Sen. Stephen Sweeney, an ironworker by trade and supposedly one of them, scapegoat public service employees as a reason for the state’s fiscal crisis. They weren’t in the mood to circle the wagons now with someone who so severely broke from them.
It bothered them, too, that they never received a public apology from the senator.
So there was a vocal group of delegates Wednesday who wanted no part of endorsing Sweeney, who’d recommended 15 percent cuts in state compensation for public service employees. Labor is labor. The idea that public workers would be seen as separate from the other unions, or their numbers soft or their dedication slack was a terrible perception fed, they felt, by the Democratic senator’s public declaration of war. It still rankled them, and worse was the idea that they would have to pat on the back someone who had violated a direct order from AFL-CIO central command: negotiate not legislate.
But there were others who argued that every union member knows it’s give and take, and all Sweeney was trying to do was to try to give the employer – namely the state, or more specifically the taxpayer, a break.
In any case, one person who wasn’t going to let people forget his stand against Sweeney on this point was Sen. Nicholas Asselta, who’s in a tough general election battle with Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew for Asselta’s district 1 seat in the upper house. Addressing the delegates moments before they voted on endorsements, Asselta, a Republican, said at the height of the public services employees crisis last summer he stood in front of 100 of the purple-shirted laborers and proclaimed, "It’s not your fault."
By contrast, Van Drew ran and hid from the issue, Asselta charged.
A statelegislator since 1995, whose father was a cop in addition to working several other jobs, Asselta went to the convention to remind delegates of his pro-labor record.
"Even Jon Corzine doesn’t have the longevity and productivity as Nick Asselta has," the senator told the delegates, in the wake of remarks by the governor.
Asselta said he fought Gov. Christie Todd Whitman on privatization of state services, secured pension benefit enhancements, supports paid family leave and protested Wal-Mart in May’s Landing six years ago. He descried the superstore’s shoddy record on health care, where taxpayers have to pick up the bill for a company he described as "the ruination of America."
"I have never purchased one item from Wal-Mart," the senator said to applause.
In the end a majority of delegates backed the recommendation of AFL-CIO leadership, endorsed both Sweeney and Asselta in their respective re-election efforts, and averted for the moment Gilchrist’s fear of "the great union family breaking apart."