State workers union prepares for Christie’s ‘chopping license’

Today’s Quinnipiac University poll made one thing clear above all else: Gov. Christopher Christie has a mandate to layoff and furlough state workers – or, as poll director Maurice Carroll put it, a “chopping license.”

Not only do New Jersey residents support layoffs or furloughs for state workers by a margin of 58% to 35%, but even the majority of union households, 50% to 44%, think those drastic measures should be taken.  And the perception that the state is in dire fiscal straits is held all but universally, with 80% of respondents categorizing the state’s budget problems as “very serious” and another 17% calling them “somewhat serious.”

“They figure he’s going to go after the unions, and apparently he’ll have support doing it,” said Carroll. 

Faced with those numbers, state workers unions know they are in for a tough budget battle with Christie, who in his inaugural address yesterday pledged deep cuts but was short on specifics.  They will not lie down, however. 

“Do we think that we have a public relations problem?  Is there a widespread misunderstanding?  Absolutely – there’s no question about it,” said Bob Master, the regional director for Communications Workers of America (CWA) – the largest state workers union in New Jersey.  “But what you accomplish if you lay people off is you undermine services.  You weaken an economy that is already in horrible shape.”

The push back from the public sector unions like the CWA and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) is in its fledgling stages.  The groups have not tried to provoke Christie during his post-election honeymoon.  But they are regrouping.

Today, hundreds of shop stewards from the CWA met at the War Memorial in Trenton, where they were expected to discuss the upcoming budget battle with Christie. 

“What’s the strategy?  We’re working on it.  We’re preparing a media campaign and a public communications campaign and a lobbying campaign and a membership mobilization campaign that starts today,” said Master, who added that most of the poll respondents probably did not know about the furlough days and wage freezes (the severity of which are up for debate) that the union agreed to last year. 

The public support for layoffs, however, is abstract, and almost certain to decrease once people start seeing cuts to programs that affect them directly.  Carroll calls this the “Goldilocks” problem, because the groups affected think their current funding levels are “just right.”

For instance, when former Gov. Jon Corzine proposed closing nine state parks, the public backlash was swift and effective.  The idea was tabled.

“I think it’s really easy for people to say ‘Yeah, yeah furlough state employees,’” said Brigid Harrison,  a political science professor at Montclair State University.  “But the reality is those are real individuals, and I think people forget that.  The specifics are much more complicated than the abstraction.”

Carla Katz, a radio personality and attorney who was deposed in 2008 as the leader of the CWA Local 1034 – the largest public workers union local in the state – made the case that cutting state workers takes money out of the economy.

“When you say cut state aid and state services, it’s not just cutting public employees or cutting government, you’re actually directly impacting the private sector also and the economy generally,” she said.  “So to talk about that at the same time that the new governor is saying he’s going to let the tax on the wealthiest New Jerseyans lapse seems ludicrous.”

Compounding the problem for the unions is the ascendancy of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford), who has held that office – the second most powerful political position in the state – since last week.

Sweeney is himself a regional director for an ironworkers’ union, but he has clashed with the public workers’ unions in the past – an example of a public/private sector union divide that likely manifested itself in today’s Quinnipiac poll.  In 2006, he advocated cutting public workers’ pay rather than raising the state sales tax, leading to mass protests in front of the Statehouse. 

But Katz wasn’t so sure Sweeney would back layoffs.

“Many years ago he was proposing cuts in wages, but not proposing layoffs.  I’m not sure where he’ll be at this point.  He seemed to have backed away from that pretty significantly a long time ago,” she said.  “But it’s certainly a worry. There’s no question that every public employee and public employee union, whether it’s at the local level or the state level, is extremely concerned about what lies ahead.”

State workers union prepares for Christie’s ‘chopping license’