The struggle to legislate higher pension and health benefits contributions for 500,000 public workers in New Jersey is shaking up the political status quo: Organized labor is attacking its traditional Democratic allies and pro-union Democrats are pitted against colleagues who plan to vote to limit collective bargaining.
The in-fighting, which shows no sign of letting up as the worker benefits bill moves through the Legislature, has diminished the unions' clout over the legislative process and driven a wedge through the state Democratic Party.
Among the discord, Republican Gov. Chris Christie appears to be the winner. Christie promised in his 2009 campaign to rein in public employee benefits as a way to help stabilize runaway property taxes. And his budget-slashing ways and "shared sacrifice" mantra have earned him the adoration of fiscal conservatives across the country.
"What you're seeing is reality settling in because if you're not going to raise taxes there's really no other way to do this," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter. "This is something Chris Christie has been talking about for a long time. It's a win for him whether Democrats like it or not."
Christie announced last week that an agreement on the bill had been struck with Democrats who control the Legislature and Republican minority leaders, who are generally in lock step with the governor's agenda. The deal requires sharply higher pension and health insurance contributions from teachers, police and firefighters and other public workers. It also limits collective bargaining over health care, which the unions and some Democrats staunchly oppose.
Labor went ahead with a scheduled protest Thursday, drawing 3,500 union workers to the state Capitol as the bill was heard for the first time by a Senate committee. After a contentious hearing, during which two dozen demonstrators were removed from the room and cited for disorderly conduct, the measure passed 9-4. Democrats were split 4-4.
Bob Master, political director of the Communications Workers of America, with 55,000 state and local members, called out Democrats who support the bill during his testimony.
"Real Democrats, not Chris Christie Democrats, would have put together their own plan and fight for it _ a plan that addresses taxpayers' needs while respecting the fundamental rights of workers," he said to rousing applause. "Real Democrats would kill this bill because workers' rights are human rights."
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who heads the Democratic State Committee, predicted limited long-term fallout.
"Ultimately, the party will be fine," Wisniewski said.
Similarly, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, an ironworker and a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, said he didn't fear union retribution.
"If they want to put a Republican Legislature here, if they want to knock me out and put my opponent in my seat, they're going to do what they think is right," Sweeney said. "I'm not going to be here to be told what to do."
The effort to limit public employees' collective bargaining rights has gained support in other states. The GOP-led effort in Wisconsin calls for public workers to pay more for health and pension benefits beginning in late August unless a lawsuit by a coalition of unions is successful. The Massachusetts House passed a bill in late April stripping public-sector unions of the right to bargain over health care.
"No Legislature is more Democratic than Massachusetts," Duffy said. "If you can do it in Massachusetts, you can do it anywhere. Obviously, the unions went crazy."
No matter how angry the unions become with Sweeney or other Democrats who support the bill, they won't be able to exact much revenge in November, said Patrick Murray, a political scientist at Monmouth University. The primaries are over and the vast majority of districts are safe seats for the incumbent, he said.
The unions, particularly the cash-flush teachers union, have seen their influence erode with this governor after they refused to take a one-year pay freeze.
"With every loss the teachers' union suffers, they seem to compound it by attacking dissident Democrats," Murray said. "The traditional union-supporting wing of the party is put in a tough position. The public is starting to turn against the unions."