Public worker unions say they are still a force

TRENTON – Back last summer when thousands of public worker union members were regularly raising a ruckus in the streets outside the Statehouse to protest proposed health and pension benefit cuts, the president of the largest state teacher’s union took to the podium to make a solemn vow.

“Every politician who decides to turn his back or decides to turn her back on the men and women that you represent, just know this,” said Barbara Keshishian, president of the NJEA, before a dramatic pause, “We will remember.”

“Do not think you can sell us out in June and buy us back in November,” Keshishian went on from a big stage set up on the western end of West State Street; her words were amplified by giant video screens and speakers.

Well, the date in November that Keshishian was talking about – Election Day last week – has come and gone and not a single one of the politicians targeted for rebuke by the NJEA and other public worker unions suffered at the polls, at least not to the point of losing their seats.

“I’m not sure we were in a position to extract a price in this election,” says Steve Wollmer, an NJEA spokesman. “It just wasn’t that kind of a climate.”

To Brigid Harrison, the Montclair University political scientist, making a vow like the one uttered by the NJEA president was a misstep.

“In some ways, the unions really cut off their nose to spite their face by saying ‘We’ll remember in November,’” Harrison said. “Because they were acting as if there was a reasonable alternative when there wasn’t.”

So is the long-feared and much-touted power of the NJEA and its sister and brother public worker unions overrated? Is the political strength of hundreds of thousands of unionized teachers, cops, firefighters and local and state government workers exhausted to the point of toothless tiger status?

It’s a question that will likely prove critical for the next big election for state offices in New Jersey, the gubernatorial and legislative elections of 2013; when the NJEA, CWA and likely others will have their shot at unseating their nemesis, Republican Gov. Chris Christie .

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, thinks the public sector unions will be as important as ever as part of the traditional Democratic voter base.

“A Democratic gubernatorial nominee is going to have to find a way to bridge the gap between organized labor and the party if they want to have a chance of beating Christie,” Dworkin said in an interview. “To lose public sector union money and other forms of support is going to hurt you and make you weaker in a race you need to be at full strength to win.”

Public worker union leaders, meantime, indicate they’re unlikely to hold grudges if the 20-some Democrats who linked arms with Christie on the health and pension legislation turn to battling the feisty but popular governor on key issues rather than going along with him.

“We have to have an alternative to the Christie agenda,” said Hetty Rosenstein, CWA state director. “We have to have a progressive agenda supporting the middle class and have the rich pay their fair share. At this point in time, at least the rhetoric coming from the leadership is better.”

Rosenstein says she’s got no regrets that her union, like the others, refused to endorse Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney or Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver as well as 20-some other Democrats for re-election.

“That was not the point,” she said in an interview. “We weren’t supporting the opposition but we felt that anyone who voted to eliminate collective bargaining rights (under the health care reforms) should not receive a labor endorsement. That’s a bright line for us and I’m perfectly happy and comfortable with that decision.”

“We did not endorse anyone who supported that legislation,” echoed the NJEA’s Wollmer. “But that does not mean that we mounted campaigns to unseat them.”

The police and fire unions did get behind the opposition separately in a couple of races and lost both of them.

The firefighters endorsed Republican Assemblyman Vince Polistina in his bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Jim Whelan in LD2 in Atlantic County, who supported the pension and health benefits overhaul. Polistina and the FMBA found themselves on the losing end of an 8-point Whelan victory.

FMBA President Bill Lavin couldn’t be reached today.

The state PBA got behind retired municipal court judge David DeWeese, Democratic Sen. Jeff Van Drew’s Republican opponent in LD1 in Cape May County, and lost by about 3,600 votes.

And while PBA President Tony Wieners tells Politicker he’s “looking forward, not back,” he notes that DeWeese’s candidacy picked up some 4,000 votes more than the challenger did in the last cycle.

“I’ve gotta believe we did make some kind of difference and did send a message to Sen. Van Drew (another Democrat who voted for the reforms),” said Wieners. The PBA president promises that in legislative and statewide races in 2013 his 32,000 members will be “much more engaged than we were in the past. Our members are starting to wake up.”

Like other public worker union leaders, Weiners is quick to point to the District 38 race in Bergen County, where Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Gordon, who opposed the reforms, held off county freeholder John Driscoll in a 7-point victory. This despite big money dumped in by the state Republican Party and Gov. Christie’s televised testimonials on behalf of Driscoll.

Wieners notes that his police officers manned the phones and forked over donations, adding, “I’d like to think we did make a difference up there.”

Ditto for the CWA’s Rosenstein.

“In the places where it really counted, the 38th for example, our support and our work made all the difference,” Rosenstein asserts. “I think our support was critical.”

So why didn’t Whelan go the way of, say, the Republican’s Driscoll?

“He’s personally popular and been around for a long time,” Rosenstein figured. She also notes that hers and other public worker unions, beyond the firefighters didn’t actively oppose Whelan. That, she said, was because the Republican Polistina voted in the Assembly as Whelan did and could be counted on by Christie to always side with the governor.

But now that the 2011 election’s over, the union leaders all said they’d put behind them the vote that to their minds crossed what Weiners described as “a line in the sand,” the same “bright line” Rosenstein speaks of.

And none of the union leaders say they’re anticipating a litmus test for the Democratic gubernatorial nominee on how they may have voted on pensions and benefits.

But despite that kind of talk, there’s still a whiff of the fresh scent of smoke wafting across a Democratic intra-party battlefield.

When Rosenstein is asked whether her union could support a candidacy by Senate President Sweeney, for example, she says it’s possible. When asked about possibilities among opponents like former governor and Sen. Dick Codey, or the soon-to-be dispatched Senate Majority Leader, Barbara Buono, Rosenstein concedes, “You could figure out who our members would prefer. We don’t have amnesia. But that doesn’t mean we don’t reassess.”

Both Harrison and Dworkin, the Montclair and Rider University political scientists, say the Democrats could suffer at the polls in 2013 if the unions aren’t charged up for a candidate.

And Harrison says that is likely going to take a candidate other than a backer of the pension and health benefits package because that “line in the sand” of negotiated compensation packages was crossed on the health care benefits legislation.

“The CWA, the NJEA, they will be looking for someone who didn’t support the leg
islation,” Harrison said.

But one thing they’re likely all to stand firm on is their opposition to the sitting governor.

“I think if you counted law enforcement right now who supported the governor,” said the PBA’s Weiners, “you could fit ’em in a phone booth.”

The question two years out is what kind of fight will the unions have in them in getting behind a candidate trying to oust their nemesis.

Public worker unions say they are still a force