Trenton Rallies To Defend Union Workers

Union workers from across New Jersey rallied in front of the statehouse in Trenton on Friday. The event was billed as a show of solidarity for union workers in Wisconsin. But the demonstrators also had a message for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who wants public employees to contribute more to their pension and health plans. New Jersey unions say Christie should stop making them the scapegoat for the state's problems.

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Governor Walker, of course, has been under fire for his proposal to end collective bargaining rights, not only in his home state of Wisconsin. Union leaders from coast to coast have been sharply critical.

In New Jersey, organized labor rallied on Friday in a show of support. The demonstrators in New Jersey also had a message for their own governor, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Building trades, electrical workers, CWA, AFL-CIO, and more. They all descended on Trenton, filling the blocks in front of the State House with homemade signs of protest.

(Soundbite of Protesters)

Mr. RICHARD TRUMKA (AFL-CIO President): You let them know that an attack against teachers or fire fighters or nurses is an attack against all workers in New Jersey.

ROSE: AFL-CIO President, Richard Trumka, was one of about a dozen speakers who hammered on a number of similar themes.

Officially the rally was to demonstrate solidarity with union workers in Wisconsin. But union leaders here in Trenton had another motive, to show New Jersey Governor Chris Christie that their still a political force to be reckoned with.

Ms. BARBARA KESHISHIAN (President, New Jersey Education Association): The governor has been out there for a year now trying to paint us as the bad guys. That is so untrue.

ROSE: Barbara Keshishian is president of the New Jersey Education Association. We spoke just before the rally. Keshishian's teachers' union is the largest in the state, and it's been a favorite target of Christie's since he took office a year ago.

Ms. KESHISHIAN: He's been a bully. And he's been out there unfairly painting us as having things that we dont deserve.

ROSE: Things Christie says they should pay more for are their health care and pension benefits. Chris Christie is a popular Republican governor in a blue state. He's often mentioned as a possible candidate for President in 2012, although he denies that he's interested in running.

Despite his anti-union rhetoric, Christie is not trying to limit the collective bargaining rights of his state's public employees, as he told MSNBC's Joe Scarborough this week.

Mr. JOE SCARBOROUGH (MSNBC): Should public unions have collective bargaining?

Governor CHRIS CHRISTIE (New Jersey): Oh, listen, they should have responsible collective bargaining. We haven't had that in New Jersey. It should be an adversarial situation. Someone should be representing the tax payers, and in New Jersey that hasn't been the case until now.

ROSE: Christie wants to cut the cost of union benefits to help close the state's $11 billion budget deficit, and his tough talk seems to be playing well with voters like Donald Pfau of Hamilton, New Jersey. Pfau attended yesterday's rally, but he stood off to the side with the counterprotesters who support what Governor Christie is trying to do.

Mr. DONALD Pfau (Protester): You know, now is the time. If we continue down the path that we're on with the certain benefits that public sector employees are receiving, it's just - it's unsustainable.

ROSE: New Jersey will need to find an extra $100 billion in order to meet its health care and pension obligations over the next 30 years. If yesterday's rally is any indication, the state's public employees don't plan to give those hard-won benefits back without a fight.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

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