NJ unions start advocacy group free of cash caps

AP News
Posted: Mar 25, 2011 5:09 PM
NJ unions start advocacy group free of cash caps

Unions in New Jersey are forming an advocacy group free from fundraising and spending limits to fight GOP Gov. Chris Christie's efforts to cut taxes and restrict collective bargaining.

The group, Working Families United for New Jersey, is made up of members from at least a half dozen local unions and has filed with the IRS as a 501(c)4 issue advocacy nonprofit, meaning it is not subject to fundraising or spending limits.

Union officials say the group will focus on educating the public about how families are affected by the governor's budget cuts, and issues of taxation, education, women's health care and the importance of collective bargaining.

"It's all about the issues that affect our community _ working families. We want to branch out and increase our base, essentially," said state AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech, who sits on the group's board.

A spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union and a frequent target of Christie, said the advocacy group was formed in response to the "national attack on labor unions and collective bargaining."

"It was formed to organize and educate the public about what's at stake for working people," said NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer, whose union was the biggest spender among lobbying groups in New Jersey last year, shelling out nearly $6.9 million.

Wowkanech said that Working Families United was not part of a national effort but was aimed at a local audience. He said the group has no plans "at the present time" to release its donor list, adding, "We're just getting the thing off the ground."

The formation of Working Families United comes less than a year after members of the state's largest public worker union, Communication Workers of America, rejected a plan to raise dues one-tenth of one percent to fund a political program to target Christie.

That was long before a national fervor broke out when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker moved to strip public employees of most bargaining rights, and when other GOP governors started blaming unions for standing in the way of their budget cutting.

Labor organizations have pledged to pour more than $30 million into efforts to stop legislation in dozens of states that would limit public workers' bargaining rights or otherwise curb union power.

Christie has long been an opponent of unions. He tried to break the union's political arm on his first day in office last year by signing an executive order banning state worker unions from making political donations over $300 per campaign. An appeals court blocked the order from taking effect.

He has mockingly said he "loves" collective bargaining, but refuses to negotiate health or pension benefit reforms, instead looking for reductions through legislation.

A spokesman for Christie declined to comment on the formation of Working Families United.

Christie came under fire after a 501(c)4 advocacy group that was liked to him and supported his viewpoints declined to release their list of donors right away. That group, Reform New Jersey Now, raised nearly $624,000 in six months, mostly from establishment Republicans and developers, many of whom made $25,000 contributions.

Reform New Jersey Now released its donors and their contributions in December after months of complaints from Democrats, who said the unlimited, secret contributions skirt state laws created to stop the awarding of lucrative government contracts to political donors.

On Friday, many of those same Democratic critics were silent, except state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who said Working Families United should also disclose their donors.

"I would still say transparency is what we should all be interested in and would apply the same standard to them," Weinberg said. "I believe there is nothing wrong with telling people who is giving to your organization and what you're spending money on."