As reported by, after asserting for months that state employee health benefits will be overhauled through legislation, Governor Chris Christie’s office is now seeking the changes through collective bargaining with the state’s largest employee union.

“He’s out of his cage!” read a memo to Communications Workers of America members obtained by the Star-Ledger, joking about Christie’s comments in March that he was looking forward to collective bargaining. “Let me at them,” Christie said at the time, showing his willingness to go out and negotiate. “Get me out of the cage and let me go.”

At a Statehouse news conference Thursday, Christie called the offer to unions a “good faith effort” but reiterated his desire to have the Legislature pass a bill and force the unions to accept his plan to make them pay 30 percent of the cost of health benefits. “We can chew gum and walk at the same time,” Christie said.

Hetty Rosenstein, the state director for the CWA, said she is optimistic moving forward. “We hope that we can begin to engage in serious negotiations with the governor,” Rosenstein said.

The governor’s initial offer to employees at the bargaining table was nearly identical to the proposal he sent to the Legislature-having workers pay 30 percent of the cost of their insurance premiums, according to the memo. In addition, the administration could increase co-pays for the duration of the four-year contract.

The offer came during the seventh meeting between the CWA and the governor’s office to negotiate a new contract for the 40,000 employees the union represents. The current contract expires on June 30.

“The Senate president has said all along that he believes the governor should at least hear the unions out at the table, so he is very happy with the administration’s action,” said Chris Donnelly, a Senate Democratic spokesman.

Jeff Keefe, a labor professor at Rutgers University, said Christie was probably trying to short-circuit the unfair practice charge recently filed against him by the CWA, since efforts to legislate benefit changes could be halted if PERC sided with the union. “I don’t think they’re going to have any meaningful give and take at the bargaining table,” Keefe said. “He wants to avoid having PERC rule against him. That would throw the whole budget situation up in the air.”