Labor gives cover to unpopular tolls hike plan

The visuals of men in t-shirts descending on Newark and choking down toll hikes to pay for life or death infrastructure had a comforting divide and conquer feel for political animals today, who observed incumbent Democrats planning their campaign kickoffs in a cold sweat. 

“It puts the Democrats in a tough spot,” admitted Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray, referring to the large-scale presence of workers at this morning’s public hearings on toll hikes.

The question was whether labor had walked into a political bear trap.

Labor says no way, but “The deal has already been made,” Murray said, referring to speculation by the political classes that Gov. Chris Christie and his New York counterpart, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, already have a silent pact to scale down the proposed toll hike from the Port Authority proposed $4 to $2. 

“Why labor needed to make itself look like the enemy of commuters is strange – there was no need for them to look like they’re out to get the typical taxpaying families of New Jersey,” added Murray.

A $4 proposed hike with the Bayonne Bridge project hanging in the balance gave the Port Authority a chance to highlight labor’s support, and shock and dismay Republican Christie, who vowed to drive the hike down to $2. Simultaneously, it enabled the GOP to torture incumbent legislative Democrats who rely on labor for money and organization but who also don’t want to back a plan that enrages commuters.

Without the animated presence of labor advocating the Port Authority-endorsed hike, “The plan would have given Democrats a chance to go after Christie but Christie very astutely was able to sidestep this and benefit in two ways: he’s going to get the toll hike lower, and he’s teaming himself with Democratic Gov. Cuomo of New York in a play for bipartisanship,” Murray said.

AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech, however, said the appearance by labor in defense of the toll hike as a way to pay for the Bayonne Bridge project is nothing more than a matter of life and death.

“If they don’t raise that bridge, those ships are going to go somewhere else,” Wowkanech said. “I don’t see this as an anti-Democrat position, I see it as survival. It’s certainly not going to be a $4 hike but $2 or $3 is a lot better than zero.”

In short, said Wowkanech, labor understands that $4 isn’t the endzone, but they must inform the public how important the project is in order to secure support for the inevitable compromise.

“It’s a jobs issue,” Wowkanech said.  

A progressive, pro-labor Democrat, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, (D-37), Teaneck, denounced the toll hike as possible poor planning at the authority more than a pro labor initiative. 

“The proposed toll hike, if implemented, would result in tolls which are 150 percent higher on drivers who already pay a fortune for the privilege of working in the city,” Weinberg wrote in a letter to Port Authority Deputy Director Bill Baroni.  

“The fact that the Port Authority would seek to implement such a burdensome toll hike with little opportunity for public input adds insult to injury.  I would hope that the agency seriously considers adding public hearings on this plan, so that commuters who will be hit with the higher tolls will have an opportunity to publicly voice their concerns.”

Labor gives cover to unpopular tolls hike plan