Coniglio departure produces interim Labor pains

Conventional wisdom says the 38th should stay in the Democratic Party column as long as the party props up a warm, scandal-free body in the 2-1 Democratic district, but the replacement for Sen. Joseph Coniglio will likely have ironclad labor ties, which are important up here in Coniglio country.

It’s hard to imagine anyone more ironclad than the plumber turned senator, who announced Wednesday that he would not pursue re-election this November. Having him in Trenton was big for the AFL-CIO, one million members strong in New Jersey, which found a champ from among their own, according to organization President Charles Wowkanech.

"He is the prodigal son of all the construction trades because he’s a plumber," Wowkanech said of Coniglio. "All of these construction workers knew they had a spokesman who sat at the table. Joe to me is a dear friend and a brother."

Labor depended on Coniglio’s support for paid family leave and prevailing workers’ wages in a district where the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the food and commercial workers are strong, where in his 2005 bid for governor, Jon Corzine cried to a packed house of IBEW members in Paramus, "I’m proud to stand in the house of labor."

As the unions two years later remain entrenched in opposition to now-Gov. Corzine’s highway monetization study, their leaders could count on labor-endorsed incumbents to step out on the governor regarding this critical labor issue, Coniglio among them.

Add it all up, and if allegations that the soft-spoken senator was steering grants to the hospital while receiving $5,500-per month for consulting work at Hackensack University Medical Center, shook the Democratic Party, the consequences on Wednesday especially wounded labor.

Like the AFL-CIO, the Industrial Union Council (IUC), with roots going back 70 years in the CIO before that organization merged with the AFL and still an independent entity, relied on Coniglio’s support. "Joe has always been a straight shooter, and he kept an eye out for the labor movement," said IUC President Ray Stever. "He signed onto paid family medical leave bill S-2249. It wasn’t hard to get him on board when union was there."

According to Wowkanech, candidates who are endorsed by the AFL-CIO must first maintain a minimum threshold of 75% support for labor issues. Even if they break out of the pack on a single issue, join a picket line or make a strong pro-labor statement, if they don’t have that two-year, pro-labor voting record they don’t get the organization’s endorsement.

Coniglio has been solid.

But labor isn't automatically with Coniglio’s party

Standing by the AFL-CIO’s state senate endorsements in this election, consisting of 23 Democrats (including Coniglio), 10 Republicans and seven non-endorsements, Wowkanech says his organization doesn’t care about party. A registered Democrat who admits he believes the Democratic Party is "closer to the values of the people," Wowkanech nevertheless won’t be limited by a candidate’s political affiliation, and there’s a very pragmatic reason for that. He remembers the reality of then-Gov. Jim Florio’s tax hike in the early 1990s, which slew a chamber full of Democratic Party legislators, leaving labor with no support in Trenton.

"In my experience, lobbying only one party makes if difficult for labor to advance its agenda," said the operating engineer turned union leader.

Since the AFL-CIO goes after legislators in both parties, corralling them with issues that matter to the organization and creating a red-blue zigzag effect across the state, the Democrats’ pick of a lukewarm labor substitute in the 38th district could propel the Republicans to respond by snagging a last minute labor guy stand-in to give the GOP a desperation shot at picking up an extra seat here.

But the Dems know the terrain, and probably won’t make that mistake.

Regardless of who ends up succeeding Coniglio, regardless of party, Wowkanech can state one thing with certainty: "I would really like to see another labor candidate step up." Coniglio departure produces interim Labor pains