ATLANTIC CITY — Hundreds of union workers marched in the rain from Caesars to City Hall on Tuesday, as the New Jersey State AFL-CIO joined forces with this city to stop a state takeover.
Fearing a Senate bill giving the state power to tear up the city’s union contracts could set a precedent, workers waved flags, held signs and shouted chants as they poured into council chambers.
“This is not a state issue. Around this country, labor people are watching what happens here in Atlantic City,” said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey state AFL-CIO.
Wowkanech was followed by other union leaders from the city and across the state. Ahmid Abdullah, president of Atlantic City's blue collar workers union, said if the state is able to break collective bargaining agreements for the city’s workers, the state could go after other public unions too.
“They’re not just coming for one group. They’re coming for everybody,” he said.
The takeover bill, which passed the Senate in March, would give the state’s Local Finance Board director the ability to amend or terminate the city’s collective bargaining agreements to cut costs as the city faces a $100 million budget deficit without state aid.
In promoting the bill, Gov. Chris Christie has taken aim at the salaries of public safety workers, describing them as rich and expensive to taxpayers.
But TJ Moynihan, president of the city’s police union, said the city isn’t in the shape it’s in because of collective bargaining, but rather the contraction of the casino industry. He said the city’s public safety unions already addressed issues raised by the state and modified their contracts to save the city money.
“We’ve done everything they asked, and now in return we’re scapegoated as the problem in this city,” he said.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee will meet Thursday to amend a rival bill to the takeover. The bill, introduced by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, will be amended to clarify that payments in lieu of property taxes from casinos will go to city schools. After that, the bill will be ready for an Assembly floor vote, a news release said.
“I made clear that this bill was a work in progress, and I remain open to compromising, but we will now be ready to move forward,” Prieto, D-Hudson, Bergen, said in a statement.
Prieto’s bill sets annual fiscal benchmarks for the city to meet. Only if the city fails to meet those goals could a committee sell assets or toss out union contracts — actions the state could take immediately under the Senate takeover bill.
Mayor Don Guardian backs Prieto’s bill, but said he’d accept a bill with more immediate benchmarks from now till December if that allowed a compromise among state elected officials.
“We’re trying to find resolution and compromise, and I think we can do it,” Guardian said. “We’ve all taken very tough stands, so I have to figure out: how do I step out of my shoes and put myself their shoes.”
Christie has said he will only sign the Senate bill, which was introduced by Senate President Stephen Sweeney and voted on by Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic. Atlantic County’s other Democratic lawmaker, Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, recently signed a letter urging Prieto to post the Senate bill for a vote.
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, voted to advance Prieto’s bill from committee last week and has called on Christie and legislative leaders to get in a room and hash out an agreement.