News & Politics

Democrats Backing NJ Gov. Christie's Anti-Worker Law Facing a Challenge From Progressive Group

Stephen Sweeney is a union worker turned Democratic state senator who's now backing Tea Party Governor Christie's attacks on workers, but progressives are fighting back.

Most of the blame for union-busting, anti-worker legislation in New Jersey has rightly landed on the shoulders of the state's blustering right-wing governor, Chris Christie.

Christie was, after all, one of the first of a wave of Tea Party-supported, radical state politicians to take control and usher in an era of austerity, cutting benefits and redefining workers' rights on the job. And he makes a good cartoon villain, taking a state-funded helicopter to arrive at his son's baseball game, calling teachers' unions “bullies and thugs,” and taking his political fights on the airwaves. His name has already been bandied about as a possible Republican presidential candidate.

And 51 percent of New Jerseyans say they'll vote for someone else next time around—and that number's up to 53 percent among likely voters. Christie's polarizing, all right, especially as he signed into law a new bill that Steve Kornacki of Saloncalled “the most significant victory that any governor in the country has scored against public workers.”

According to NJ.com:

The bill increases pension costs up to two percent of workers’ salaries for all public employees, while at least doubling, and in many cases tripling, their health care contributions. It also raises the retirement age from 62 to 65, eliminates cost-of-living adjustments and creates a board to formulate a menu of health plans, including low-cost, high-deductible options.


Most importantly, it bans collective bargaining over health care for four years, and it was passed with bipartisan support.

New Jersey is normally one of the bluest of blue states, but in an early predictor of how 2010 was going to go, Christie was swept into power in 2009, riding Tea Party anger to defeat incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs CEO. The state legislature, though, is still controlled by Democrats and those Democrats helped push through Christie's anti-worker bill.

And now those Democrats are facing some serious anger.

Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, was formerly the communications director for the New Jersey Democratic party, but he's outraged at the actions of members of the party. Specifically, at Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who himself is a former union ironworker.

Green, in an action email this week, says that it's “well known in political circles” that Sweeney plans to run for governor, and asks supporters of the PCCC to sign up at SweeneyNotMyLeader.com to support a real progressive instead of someone who will rubber-stamp Christie's agenda:

As New York Democrats pass historic marriage equality legislation, NJ Democrats led by Stephen Sweeney killed marriage equality in New Jersey.

As Wisconsin Democrats show the nation how to fight, NJ Democrats led by Stephen Sweeney aided and abetted the national Republican war on working families.

Sweeney, who still serves as business representative for Ironworkers Union Local 399, even proposed cutting state retirement plans under Democratic Governor Corzine. Though private sector unions have stood, for the most part, in solidarity with the public sector workers under fire across the country, Sweeney claimed to have support from private sector unions for his moves against state pension plans, and the split caused friction within the state AFL-CIO, which encompasses both public and private sector unions.

The tension between private-sector workers, who are mostly non-union and who even if they are unionized tend not to have the benefits packages public workers do, was something that Republicans (and, obviously, certain Democrats) were counting on as the bills attacking public workers were rolled out in state after state. But it's not just pension envy that led Sweeney to back Christie in beating up on the state workers.

Sweeney and the Democrats who supported the bill tended to come from South Jersey, where old-school machine politicians hold sway. One of the biggest names in state politics, Steve Kornackipoints out, is George Norcross, an insurance executive who might be considered a Democratic boss but doesn't have any problem cutting deals with Christie. Norcross, blogger Ellington at Blue Jerseynotes, would have stood to profit from a provision that Sweeney introduced to do away with the public State Health Benefits Plan as well. That plan didn't work, but it doesn't mean that the Norcross machine's fingerprints aren't all over the collaboration with Christie.

Kornacki further writes that Norcross has connections in Essex County, which encompasses Newark and surrounding areas and is typically a Democratic stronghold, and that it's rumored that the Norcross machine didn't turn out for Corzine in 2009, helping Christie get the governorship in the first place.

Rising anger at the Democrats who've sold out working people, though, means that the next campaign cycle will likely look very different. And if Sweeney, who defeated a Republican incumbent for his seat, has aligned himself closely with Christie and alienated key Democratic constituencies, wants to be governor, maybe he'll have better luck running as a Republican.

After all, in less than a day, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee had 2400 people sign up to defeat Sweeney in a run he hasn't even declared yet. 

Sarah Jaffe is a contributor to AlterNet and a freelance writer.
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