Unions look to Whelan, Pou: last garrison for benefit bargaining rights

Several union officials said the last stand for negotiated health care and pension benefits is being waged right now.

Two key figures are Assemblywoman Nellie Pou (D-35), of North Haledon, and state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-2), of Atlantic City, according a union officials, north and south barometers of the union’s last stand. They’re not the only targeted allies for some of the large public sector unions, but they are both on the list and each also has a high-stakes campaign this fall.

Gov. Chris Christie and state Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-3) have staked out their territory for months, and the final push for reform will happen now – with a budget due in six weeks and fundraising season to follow.

The unions are hoping to stem the tide of legislative reform in the Assembly, where some Democratic leaders have held off the South Jersey-GOP Senate alliance that has 21 votes at the ready.

Municipal labor negotiations are at a standstill, union officials said, as mayors wait for reform from Trenton.

Pou is a municipal manager, assistant business administrator in Paterson. So union officials hope she understands the importance of allowing the negotiations to continue. In her leadership position as Appropriations chairwoman, Pou  also is an influential legislator, and running for a state Senate seat in November.

“I am extremely protective of the collective bargaining process,” she said this week. “Health benefits should be part of collective bargaining.”

Pou said she wasn’t at the center of the legislative process. Sweeney is sponsor of both of pension and health care reform bills. She’s not well-versed in the specific differences yet; neither has been put in front of her for a vote.

She said the bargaining process was producing results and should remain in place, contrary to those other factions.

“(The CWA) came back with a very aggressive proposal,” she said. “It was extremely proactive. If we would have legislated this, I’m not sure that that would have been the case.”

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34), of East Orange, has followed the lead of her caucus – in favor of union rights – and against the public outcry for reform from her boss in her day job, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, who has shown influence over other legislators.

Pou is a fair weather vane of the Assembly Democratic caucus; she’ll be an “important vote” one union official admitted.

In the upper chamber, Whelan is usually part of a voting bloc from the South that has been funded in part by insurance mogul George Norcross, able to operate outside of the union-centric Democratic power formula.

But Whelan sways from the South Six at times; for instance, as a school teacher by day, he staunchly opposes the Opportunity Scholarship Act, the tax break-school voucher program supported and sponsored by the Norcross camp.

But on pension and benefits, Whelan wants Sweeney’s pieces of legislation to prevail.

“We’re in a real crisis here,” Whelan said – and that changes the rules. “You can’t’ pretend we’re not…Some of my (teaching) colleagues get very angered when I speak (about) this.”

The usual approach of bargaining isn’t working, although Whelan was able to make it work.

“We did double zeroes,” he said, proudly. As mayor of Atlantic City, he was able to – several times, after shutting the city down – get two-year no-increase contracts with police and fire. “We had our battles with the unions,” he said, but they found consolidation and avoided layoffs. “Double zeroes. That was collective bargaining.”

“I respect the collective bargaining process (but) business as usual doesn’t work (any more),” he said. “We have an unsustainable system…I’d love to be able to get there through collective bargaining.”

Sweeney’s version of reform is less painful in the short- and long-term, from a union perspective. Whelan implores the unions to come around and work with the Senate president. He credits the CWA for bringing concessions, albeit in negotiations, to the table, but said he’s not sure “that gets us to where we need to be.”

“I think there’s a wish that this will all go away,” he said, but coming to the table could result in a sunset provision, “to get us through this crisis,” as was the case in the binding arbitration reform that passed last year.

The unions are most likely petitioning some of the legislators for these provisions already, but they were hoping that Whelan’s tough election against GOP up-and-comer Assemblyman Vince Polistina (R-2), of Egg Harbor, may have brought him closer to the union stance – especially considering his successful experience with collective bargaining as a mayor. One union leader said Whelan would be “targeted heavily” for that support.

“They can do what they want,” Whelan said. “I would love to have the support of the public unions (but) I’m not going to be owned by the unions.”

The unions have to decide whether they want to back Polistina, who’s supporting Christie’s heavy-handed reforms, Whelan said, or someone supporting the more union-friendly Sweeney bills that take a person’s ability to pay for health care into account by “indexing it to the salary.” Whelan said, “It makes it more fair,” at least compared to Christie’s across-the-board percentages.

He’s a union teacher opposing the teacher’s union’s last defense of table rights, but he said his first responsibility is to the taxpayers, bar none.

Unions are assuming either state Sens. Brian Stack (D-33), of Union City, or M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), of Newark, will be onboard with 15 or 16 Republican Senators and five or six Southern Dems to lock in the upper chamber vote when the agreed-upon bills are finalized. The Assembly vote is harder to forecast, but sources said there is talk of some of the exiting legislators- those not running for reelection – casting the ayes to draw fire from the rest of the assembly.

As they make their rounds, at least one union is pitching the argument that Christie has allowed union negotiations at the Meadowlands Racetrack and the N.J. Turnpike Authority to effectuate acceptable concessions, while standing strong against giving public sector unions the same chance. The cherry on top for the unions: all the while Christie is telling the voters he “loves” collective bargaining.

Hypocritical, one union official said, but publicly airing these Christie-tarnishing arguments would severely hamper relations with the powerful Governor’s Office, the source said, with whom the unions are simultaneously negotiating. So union officials are speaking anonymously, the source said, while Christie lashes out at every town hall he visits.

A few of the union officials who spoke to State Street Wire for the story said they have room to negotiate on pensions, which is good for Sweeney because that’s where he and Christie have the biggest discrepancies between the two reforms.

Unions look to Whelan, Pou: last garrison for benefit bargaining rights