Gov. Chris Christie, long at odds with unions over his budget-cutting ways, said that he's ready to start negotiating with state worker unions _ and that he "loves" collective bargaining.
Christie said at a town hall meeting in Hillsborough that New Jersey is very different from Wisconsin, where a debate rages over whether that state's Republican governor is trying to break unions by getting rid of collective bargaining. Christie said he has never suggested that collective bargaining rights be taken away.
Just the opposite, said Christie, a darling of the Republican Party.
"In fact, I love collective bargaining," Christie told the crowd Wednesday, packed into a room in the municipal building. "I've said let's get rid of civil service and let everything be collectively bargained, as long as collective bargaining is fair, tough, adversarial and there's someone in that room representing you."
After accusing former Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, of being too cozy with the unions, Christie said there would be a different tone this year.
"Let me at them. Get me out of the cage and let me go," Christie said.
The governor also said he wants to roll back a 9 percent pension increase signed into law a decade ago by former Republican Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, who was in the audience at Wednesday's meeting.
DiFrancesco said Christie is right.
"Things are different now, and it's choking the system," he said. "He needs to do something dramatic."
DiFrancesco said he did what he thought was right at the time _ noting that the economic outlook was better and that the pension system was running a surplus. Now, the pension system for government workers, teachers, police, firefighters, judges and teachers is underfunded by $54 billion.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the administration has reached out to all the major unions to set up an initial meeting.
Christie has a difficult history with unions. He refused to meet with a state teachers union during his campaign and later took on their salaries and benefits. The conflict led to heated rhetoric, including Facebook posts calling Christie fat, comparing him to a genocidal dictator and wishing for his death.
Communications Workers of America spokesman Bob Master said he takes Christie's "love" of collective bargaining with a grain of salt.
"You can't love collective bargaining and want to unilaterally ram health care changes through the legislature in two weeks' time," Master said. "Those are not consistent."
Christie has been pushing legislative leaders to act on health care changes by mid-March.
Master said the administration offered to meet with CWA officials March 11.
The union has criticized the Republican governor and state Senate President Stephen Sweeny for proposing ways to significantly increase the amount public employees pay for health care through legislation, not collective bargaining.
Christie wants benefit changes that make the health insurance system more like the private sector or the federal government, with employees paying about one-third of the costs of whatever benefits plan they choose.
Sweeney's plan calls for employees to contribute 12 percent to 30 percent, depending on income, over several years.
Christie defended the move to use legislation for the reforms, noting that's how the unions were able to secure a 9 percent pension increase.
"If we're giving them something, it's OK to go to the Legislature," Christie said. "If we're taking something back, it's a violation of the sacrosanct of collective bargaining?"