New Jersey public pensions battle goes down to the wire

TRENTON, New Jersey – The state’s long-running public pensions battle, pitting GOP Gov. Chris Christie’s cuts and broken promises against thousands of state and local workers and retirees who may see their pensions slashed, is going down to the wire.

At issue: Whether the Democratic-run state legislature, which acted in concert with Christie before, will move in time to get a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the state must make the pension payments onto the Nov. 8 ballot. The deadline was August 9.

And to make sure solons do so, thousands of workers, led by the Communications Workers and the New Jersey Education Association, rallied in Trenton in early August.

The fight over the pensions affects at least 60,000 Garden State workers in state and local governments, their families and retirees. But it’s also part of a nationwide business, right wing and Republican movement to trash public workers, cut their pay and kill their pensions. Other GOP-led state governments are watching New Jersey for a cue to future outcomes.

“It’s been over two decades since any administration – Republican or Democratic – made a full pension payment,” said CWA State Director Hetty Rosenstein. “The fact that Senate President (Steve) Sweeney – at the 11th hour – will not post it for a vote is the exact reason we’re demanding a constitutional amendment.

“There is no reason the pension should be a casualty of the legislature’s inability to secure votes for the Transportation Trust Fund,” she said of Sweeney’s fight with Christie over that money. “But every time there is some other political or economic issue, the pension plan is traded for it.”

Sweeney, a Democrat, also said “There’s always next year” for the pension referendum. That angered NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer, who replied: “Sweeney made a promise to our members the pension amendment would happen this year. Next year isn’t good enough. He needs to decide whether he’s going to lead or just roll over and be part of the problem.

“New Jersey has too many politicians who have broken pension promises. We need a leader who will keep the promise. We will not accept anything less than the amendment he promised this year,” he said. Before the rally, NJEA members flooded state lawmakers with phone calls and e-mails. “New Jersey doesn’t need another politician who tells pension lies,” Steinhauer said.

The pension battle began several years ago when Christie claimed the state not only wouldn’t pay its part of the pensions, but couldn’t afford to do so. He pressured Sweeney and the legislators into a compromise, including future state payments, then reneged. The unions, including police and Fire Fighter unions, sued for the pensions, won in lower courts, but lost in state Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Photo: Workers protest pension slashes in New Jersey. | CWA


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.