As reported by nj.com, with contracts for 49,000 state workers due to expire this June, Governor Chris Christie has publicly proclaimed he wants no pay raises and expects state workers to fork over much more for health and pension benefits. Union leaders say they have had no meetings with the governor’s office and worry this does not bode well for getting a deal before the current contracts are up.
At stake in this year’s talks are two of Christie’s signature issues: health and pension reform for state employees. Christie has declared there will be no pay increases for state workers, recently making the commitment in an interview with Fox News. He also has made clear his expectations for cuts in employee benefits: increase pension contributions for all employees to 8.5 percent of salary, require state workers to pay 30 percent of their health care premiums, raise the retirement age, and eliminate cost of living adjustments for pension recipients.
David Cohen, head of employee relations, will negotiate for the governor’s office, Christie said. “If and when he needs me to come in from the bullpen to help, I’m prepared to do it,” Christie said. Union leaders say they were told no meetings would be scheduled until after the governor’s budget presentation on February 22. In past contract negotiations, discussions have begun the fall before.
The governor’s office has gotten tough in negotiations with toll collectors who officially bargain with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority. The talks began in anticipation of a move by Christie’s office to privatize the operations and eliminate publicly funded collectors. Franceline Ehret, head of the toll collectors union, said the talks have been unlike any in the 10 years she had headed the group. She said in the past, the Turnpike Authority was empowered to make decisions about contracts, but this year all decisions are being routed through Christie’s office. She said the administration wants $12 million to $14 million in concessions, not including health and pension benefits changes.
If the administration and the state workers unions cannot reach an agreement in June, the employees are barred from striking, but could use tactics to slow work productivity. The Governor, as employer, could initiate punishment if rules are not followed. Christie could opt to keep benefits out of the collective bargaining process and instead change the health benefits and pensions through legislation. That’s an option he said he would consider, but stressed his administration will bargain in good faith.
As one can expect, the upcoming contract negotiations with the Christie administration will have an enormous impact on all New Jersey public employees, to include public safety officers, and their successor collective bargaining agreements. Please continue to check this blog periodically to ascertain updates regarding the negotiations as they become available.