Union leaders fight privatization attempt

TRENTON – Officials representing N.J. Turnpike workers said Thursday they have been getting the runaround, with state Transportation officials failing to take their proposals into consideration.

“I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone,” Fran Ehret, president of Local 194 of IFPTE,  told the Assembly State Government Committee during its hearing into proposed privatization. “It’s very disturbing to us.”

Efforts to negotiate through collective bargaining have not been successful, she said.

“They just shot everything down,” she said. “We never got a response on our proposal. We were trying to get something real on the table.”

She said being a toll collector is not like being a retail worker with “glorified wages.” If anything, she said it’s a lot less safe.

“Our members get robbed,” she said. “There’s almost no security out there. You’re sucking the fumes all day long, dealing with all different personalities.”

“They want to drive our wages down to $12 an hour,” she said.

Charles Wowkanech, president of the state AFL-CIO, said “I think it’s despicable.” .

He said you could not even eat at McDonald’s, let alone a feed a family, on such a wage.

Assemblyman Herb Conaway, (D-7), Burlington, said he found the testimony “disturbing.”

Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, (R-12), Monmouth, said it would be misleading to say the Turnpike workers have been feeling the pain, given all the bonuses they have been receiving that are locked into their contract, such as bonuses for working on their birthday, among other things.  

“You cannot say in good conscience that (you have lived through what) many New Jerseyans have lived through,” she said. “We have to be careful.”

Casagrande took issue with the criticism from her colleagues that privatization leads to lower-quality workers, pointing out Turnpike employees have been accused of terrible behavior, such as making slurs.

Conaway asked “what relevance” that issue has to privatization, calling her statement “inappropriate.” Assembly Chair Linda Stender, (D-22), Fanwood, then banged her gavel, demanding Casagrande to stay on the privatization topic, instead of talking about management issues.

Casagrande said the issue is about effectively delivering services “at the lowest cost to our citizens.”

She added that based on a 2008 report, there was a high ratio between supervisors and employees, and asked if there’s anything being done to reduce the costs.

Ehret told Casagrande that the number of supervisors has come down.

Of the $24 million in concessions offered by the Turnpike workers, $9.5 million in savings would come from salary reductions, $1.6 million would come from cutting out sick-leave cash payouts, $8.75 million savings would be achieved by doing away with separation bonuses, $1.6 million through cuts in overtime pay, $845,000 through cuts in clothing allowances, and $1.8 million by giving up two holiday payments.

Ehret said what the union is offering is well more than the $12 million to $14 million in concessions that Transportation Department officials initially asked for.

Ehret said the Turnpike has eight unions, and that none of her employees receive the birthday bonuses that Simpson has repeatedly referred to.

The current hourly-wage pay scale for full-time employees ranges between $18 and $34.




Union leaders fight privatization attempt