Toll collectors on the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike are raising money and reaching out to political leaders as they continue their campaign against plans to privatize their jobs.
The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, the union representing toll collectors, has joined forces with other labor groups to hold rallies, seek political support and send petitions to New Jersey’s transportation commissioner.
Escalating the campaign, the IFPTE held a fundraiser Thursday night in Trenton to boost its war chest. Kevin McCarthy, president of IFPTE Local 194, said more than $32,000 has been raised so far for advertising, a new website and other campaign costs.
Union leaders fear privatization will lead to more job losses and wage cuts in an already shrinking workforce. Local 194 lost 150 jobs and accepted $22 million in concessions in 2011 as part of an agreement with the parkway and turnpike’s operating authority to forestall privatization at that time, McCarthy said.
“The biggest fear about privatization is the fact that it not only cuts New Jersey jobs, but they have taken what were once good-paying, decent, livable wages and brought them down to nonlivable wages and near-poverty,” McCarthy said in an interview Thursday.
As part of the 2011 concessions, the parkway and turnpike toll collectors saw their average annual salary cut from about $65,000 to $49,500. As more full-time collectors retire, they are being replaced by part-timers earning $12 per hour.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the parkway and turnpike operator, has revived the possibility of privatization. It has decided to seek bids for a private company to oversee toll collection on both roads.
Unions plan to hold a protest at the turnpike authority’s monthly board meeting on Tuesday. McCarthy said the unions will have pickets outside the authority’s Woodbridge, Middlesex County, headquarters, as well as representatives inside during the meeting.
“We’re going to try to get as many people out as possible,” he said.
Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the turnpike authority, was not immediately available for comment Thursday. In the past, Feeney and other authority officials have defended the privatization plan as a way to save money and eliminate onerous union work rules.
Unions have been seeking political support to kill the privatization plan. McCarthy said the Hudson and Essex County freeholder boards, as well as local governments in Jersey City, Bayonne and Kearny, have all passed resolutions opposing privatization.
Some of the unions’ political backers include North Jersey Democrats in Congress and the state Legislature, McCarthy said. New Jersey Democratic U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone, Rush Holt and Donald Payne Jr. were listed as “honorary campaign chairs” for Thursday night’s toll collector fund-raiser in Trenton.
Once a ubiquitous part of highway operations nationwide, toll takers have been disappearing in recent years as more motorists switch to the automated E-ZPass fare-collection system. E-ZPass currently accounts for about 80 percent of the toll-paying traffic on both the parkway and turnpike.
According to the turnpike authority’s most recent figures, there are currently 200 toll collectors on the turnpike and 136 on the parkway. The total workforce for collectors on both roads once numbered about 1,000.
Private toll collection is already in place on New Jersey’s other major toll road, the Atlantic City Expressway. The South Jersey Transportation Authority, the expressway’s operator, approved a $3.7 million contract last year to have a private company oversee its toll-collection system through November 2014. The expressway expects to save about $7.5 million because it has been relieved of the cost of salaries and benefits for the toll collectors.
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