Unions hold ground on bargaining in meeting with top Dems moving toward legislative action

Union officials from the AFL-CIO and other top unions met with Democratic leaders yesterday to discuss the ongoing health care and pension reform attempts.

The legislator in the middle of the battle, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34), of East Orange, isn’t tipping her hand, but sources said she’s leaning toward presenting a compromise reform bill that melds together portions of union offers for savings.

At least one union official said this is entirely unacceptable to them, but Oliver maintains that everyone can come out of this a winner.

“I certainly don’t want to publicize how I intend to seek to negotiate, ameliorate, and bring everyone to accord on this issue,” Oliver told State Street Wire today. “We have to emerge with a win-win…I do not think it behooves us to cavalierly ignore that a lot of lives are at stake here.”

But bringing two diametrically opposed sides together may be harder than herding cats if the unions have anything to say about it. Bob Master, political director at the CWA, said although he wasn’t at the meeting Tuesday, he’s not willing to allow the cost saving ideas the union offered through negotiations to be spun into a legislative reform that would placate state Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-3), of West Deptord, and Christie.

“We made that (offer) at the table,” he said, to demonstrate the union’s willingness to concede savings – but only through bargaining. “We are prepared to be a partner with (Christie) at the table.”

Asked if the union would be offended if cost-saving measures were cherry-picked from their negotiation offer to Christie, and transferred into a consensus-building reform bill, Master said, “Offended would be putting it mildly.”

“The speaker and the Senate president, and the entire Legislature, need to stay out of the process of bargaining health care,” he said. “These are the only Democrats in America that instead of siding with the workers and defending the rights of collective bargaining …are siding with this Republican governor.”

“If they want a war over collective bargaining rights, they’ll have a war over collective bargaining rights,” Master said. “The CWA believes that health care must be bargained at the table. It always has been, going back to Tom Kean. The Democrats should not do anything (that allows) the governor to evade his legal obligation to bargain at the table.”

The fact that Democrats were significantly out-fundraised by Republicans last quarter speaks volumes to the ongoing tumult over private sector reforms, according to one union official who asked not to be named. “There’s a reason for that,” the source said of the dwindling financial support for the workers’ party.

The bankrolling power of the public sector unions is central to Democratic dominance in general elections across New Jersey, and it is being dangled in front of the Dems like a wife withholding relations until the trash gets taken out. Go to far, they say, and the cash stays in the pocket.

“The unions have us over a barrel,” said a former Democratic County Chairman. “Pay to play laws have significantly reduced our fundraising base and left labor as one of the only remaining sources.”

One union official said even Republican legislators didn’t expect Sweeney’s health care plan to so drastically upend the system – a 23 percent top-tier contribution rate at the end of a seven-year rollout – which completely changed the starting point for negotiations between the pro-union Democrats and the pro-business Republicans.

And as the negotiation over legislation versus bargaining rages on, Oliver has become the arbitrator, the woman in the middle of one of the fiercest debates in recent Trenton history

On one side is Christie, pitching health care reform price tagged at $323 million in his proposed budget; Sweeney, who has a less-painful $20 million plan for health care reform in the upcoming fiscal year; and a smattering of public officials across the state, including Democrats like Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, who are squarely behind something like the Christie/Sweeney plans.

On the other side are the public sector employees, their unions, and the Democratic legislators who support them – and get support from them.

Oliver is chief among those legislators but at her day job, her boss is DiVincenzo.

She has said in the past that DiVincenzo plays no role in her Trenton pursuits, but recently, DiVincenzo, clamoring loudly for Statehouse reform, found his bully pulpit eroded by his own pension issues. Now, political insiders wonder whether he will re-manifest his reform rally cry in Oliver.

“I’m not going to even entertain that,” she said, “because Joe discusses very little with me when it comes to the New Jersey General Assembly.”

Marked by this stigma, Oliver is over and over asked to define the limits of her political independence. She said, simply, “At the end of day, born free, die free.”

It’s unlikely that she’s carrying any water for DiVincenzo right now, Assembly sources agreed; Oliver is representing her caucus first. Complicating matters intentionally, Christie has also tied homestead tax credits to “meaningful” health care reform – so the impetus for the Democrats to come up with some bill that acceptably regulates public employee health care is real and tangible.

All told, the momentum is shifting from negotiated health care to legislated health care.

This may not end before the budget is passed, according to one union official, since the Democratic leadership pledged to work on the pension and benefit problems through the summer if need be.

A source close to the Assembly Dems said some sort of reforms have a 75 percent chance to pass before the budget, with Sweeney pressing for action as soon as May 9 voting session.

“That’s completely unrealistic (in May),” the source said, but noted that Democratic legislators are even less excited about the prospect of voting on these reforms in September, just a month before the election.

Oliver, unwilling to divulge even the slightest hint of a timeline or course of action, said only, “It’s a work in progress here.” Unions hold ground on bargaining in meeting with top Dems moving toward legislative action