As reported by app.com, more union protests are planned at the New Jersey Statehouse for Monday as the debate over public employee benefits rages on. A bill requiring sharply higher pension and health care contributions from 500,000 public employees will be voted on in the Senate on Monday, the same day the contentious bill gets its first public hearing in the Assembly.
“This is the defining moment for the labor movement in our generation,” AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech worte in an email to enlist support for Monday’s rally, the latest of several recent Capitol protests. “Only through your presence in Trenton on Monday will we make the difference.” Wowkanech was among 25 union members who were arrested after disrupting a Senate hearing on the bill last Thursday. They were issued disorderly persons summonses and released.
Democrats who lead the Senate have aligned with Republican Governor Chris Christie and GOP legislative leaders to support a bill that charges employees more to help shore up the underfunded retirement systems. A new tiered system will require teachers, police and firefighters and other public workers to pay a portion of their health insurance premiums based on income. Pension contributions will also rise by 1 percent immediately, and by an additional percent or more after a seven-year phase in. Public sector unions are vehemently opposed, in part because the bill limits collective bargaining over health care. Many Democrats agree.
A provision to allow collective bargaining over health care to resume after four years did little to quell objections. A call to split the bill into two, one for pensions, which has wide support, and one for health care, has so far been refused by Senate President Stephen Sweeney. Christie also has said he would not support separate measures. The employee benefits bill has enough votes to pass in both the Senate and the Assembly as is, even though a majority of Democrats in both houses do not support it.
A fight also looms Monday about a provision deep inside the bill to limit public workers’ access to out-of-state medical care. The proposal restricts use of out-of-state doctors and hospitals unless similar care is not available in New Jersey. There are some exceptions, like emergency care, and employees would have to be offered a plan allowed unrestricted access to out-of-state care. That option would cost more.
Opponents of the provision say it’s imperative that all workers and their families have access to the same level of medical benefits. Proponents of the measure say the state’s doctors and hospitals are as good as any and the state should encourage their use.
The state teachers union says Sweeney’s friend and mentor, southern New Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross, would benefit from the provision. Norcross, who heads Cooper Health System and Cooper University Hospital, denied the allegation.