Thousands of people plan to rally in front of the Statehouse in Trenton today to protest Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget cuts and show how they would hurt working families in New Jersey.
Dozens of groups, including several public-employee labor unions, say they hope a show of force will sway the state’s top politicians to fight the governor’s cuts to education, public services and almost every government department.
Christie has called for workers to accept wage freezes and he pushed for them to contribute toward their health benefits.
Madeline Avery, president of the Greater Egg Harbor Regional Education Association, representing employees at Absegami and Oakcrest high schools, expects to join about 400 locals loading onto eight buses in Atlantic County early Saturday morning.
“We have to show that these cuts are going to hurt real, real people,” she said by phone Friday night. By cutting $1.5 billion from education funds and millions from social services, she said, “We are talking about a special-needs kid who’s losing services, a foster kid who won’t get the same help.”
Although the timing of the rally had been set for a week, it now occurs against a backdrop of ramped-up budget rhetoric between Christie, a Republican, and Democratic lawmakers.
On Thursday night, the state Senate and Assembly passed measures to restore senior property-tax rebates to the budget, and to increase taxes on residents with incomes of over $1 million.
But Christie waited in his office to veto those bills that night.
“Does he think only millionaires make business grow in the state?” Avery asked. “Don’t schools produce the work force? Isn’t that why high-tech companies would want to come here — because our students have had a good education?”
“We think this is a good moment to have this rally,” said Kathy Coulibally, an New Jersey Education Association spokeswoman for southern New Jersey.
“Because, as workers, we are the backbone of New Jersey,” she said. “We see the governor digging his heels in. And unless he hears very clearly that this is not an acceptable path, he’ll stick to that.”
In a statement announcing the rally, Charlie Wowkanech, who heads the state’s AFL-CIO, said the governor’s “so-called reforms represent a thinly veiled attack on all sectors of the New Jersey labor movement,” and are “little more than a disguised attempt to hijack the collective bargaining process.”
In addition to reducing benefits and services for working families, the AFL-CIO statement also takes aim at Christie’s goal to implement a 2.5 percent annual limit to raises on local, county and school tax levies. That cap on municipal spending would limit towns’ ability to repair roads, schools and other infrastructure, and would lead to more layoffs, the union said.
Today’s rally will include members of the NJEA and the Communications Workers of America. They will be joined by local police and fire unions, and members of several community and nonprofit groups who will be losing some or all of their funding.
Christie talked about the prospect of Saturday’s rally at a news conference on Thursday night. “Everybody in America has a right to stand up, speak their mind, and protest peacefully,” he said, adding, “You’ve got a right to do that. I stand up for your right to do that — just as much as I hope they stand up for mine.”
In preparation for the journey and the hours of picketing, Avery, a teacher of U.S. history at Absegami High School in Galloway Township, plans to gather with fellow union members at the Shore Diner to fill up on breakfast. Buses leave the Shore Mall in Egg Harbor Township at 8:30 a.m, and from the ShopRite in Hammonton at just after 9 a.m.
“I’ll be carrying a sign,” Avery said Friday, “but I haven’t made it yet. It’ll be a late-night craft project.”
Elaine Rose contributed to this story.
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