Unfair labor charge in limbo, CWA negotiations continue; Christie to be briefed Friday

PERTH AMBOY – Gov. Chris Christie was away for vacation when his staff met with representatives of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in the latest round of collective bargaining negotiations, Christie said today.

With whirlwind press conferences and budget patch-ups awaiting him, he said today in Perth Amboy that he would be brought up to speed on the status of those negotiations by his staff Friday when he plants himself in Trenton.

“Nothing new to report in terms of an impending agreement,” he said in Perth Amboy today.

Before the passage of the state budget and public worker reforms in June, the union was standing off with Christie, who said the state had made proposals on all economic and non-economic aspects of the contract without any response from the union. Today, Christie said the union has begun forwarding responses, and the back-and-forth will continue as long as is necessary.

“We’ve always responded to all proposals,” CWA Communications Director Hetty Rosenstein said today. “I could not at this time say (negotiations are) progressing,” she said, but she also wouldn’t say that they were not progressing. “We’re results-oriented.”

Christie has not been shy to voice his resistance to a pay hike even after pension and benefits reforms hit workers’ in the paycheck. Christie said today, “I know what my role is in that room.”

With opponents trying to pin the union-buster label on Christie, the governor has shown restraint on his power to impose a contract on the union. He said he would rather negotiate in good faith and come to an agreement with the union than invoke his executive privilege of unilateral, binding action.

The largest public union, the CWA represents 40,000 state workers and many other private sector employees, like the more than 20,000 Verizon workers for whom the union began negotiations for this week.

At the table with Verizon, the CWA is negotiating jointly with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in both New Jersey and New York. The At the center of the negotiations are roughly 2,500 Verizon workers in New Jersey and 20,000 in New York, plus thousands of IBEW workers in both states.

In Trenton, the biggest hurdle for the negotiating parties has been uncertainty over the passage of the public worker health care reforms, which the union claimed was an infringement on their right to collectively bargain the level and cost of health care.

“We put a health care proposal on the table on March 11,” Rosenstein said. “If the governor had been willing to negotiate on heath care and what was on the table on March 11, there’s no doubt in my mind there’d be a contract. This became unnecessarily complicated by the attack on collective bargaining. Up to that point, it was not a particularly complicated contract.”

Now that the reform is passed, the negotiation process seems to be moving forward with greater engagement, although the CWA still has an unfair labor complaint filed with the N.J. Public Employee Relations Commission over the health benefits reform.

Don Horowitz, deputy counsel at PERC, said no decision has been made whether or not to hold a hearing. A PERC director would make a decision on the hearing depending on whether the prosecuting party, in this case the CWA, is inclined to proceed formally.

“Most cases don’t even make it to a hearing,” said Horowitz. “Most cases are settled before that.”

“We are trying to bargain a contract,” Rosenstein said. “We’re looking for an agreement; we’re not looking for a legal process.”

Unfair labor charge in limbo, CWA negotiations continue; Christie to be briefed Friday