As reported by nj.com, days before the governor’s office and the state’s largest public employees union are scheduled to sit down for the first time, lawmakers are receiving letters warning of dire results that could come from changing employee benefits through law.
A letter, cosigned by 48 labor attorneys, claims that if lawmakers move forward on Governor Chris Christie’s plan to force employees to pay 30 percent of the health costs, it would eliminate any future ability to negotiate on the subject. It is the latest in a brewing war between Christie and the state’s public employee unions over their benefits and whether they should be changed through legislation.
“We want decision makers in Trenton to understand that we have a well-established legal right to negotiate over health benefits,” said Bob Masters, political director for the Communication Workers of America, which represents the majority of the state’s unionized employees.
Christie argues that since previous state employees received increases in benefits through legislation, there is nothing stopping him from reducing benefits through the same route. “They ought not complain when they have received benefits legislatively in the past,” Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said.
The letters come in advance of a Friday meeting between the administration and the CWA. It will be the first meeting to discuss contracts that expire in June. The meeting will not include Christie, his spokesman Kevin Roberts said, but will be conducted by a representative of the administration. In previous contract negotiations, discussions between the administration and the unions began months earlier.
Christie has said he does not intend for health benefits to be a topic of this year’s negotiations. While the last contract, negotiated by former Gov. Jon Corzine, increased the cost of health benefits for employees, Christie says he will seek larger contributions and get them through law, not bargaining. Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney each have legislative proposals that would make state employees pay more for health insurance.
The unions argue that historically only the pension benefits have been changed via legislation and that Sweeney’s bill, or any similar proposal, would strip them of bargaining rights they have previously been entitled to.