Fighting Back: NJ Public Educators Take on Sweeney

Grassroots Public Education Activist Groups Protests “Path to Progress”, Grades NJ Senate President

By Ryan Hosey

Last Tuesday, NJ21United and Communication Workers of America (CWA) staged a protest near New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney’s West Deptford office.

The rally, officially called “Does Senator Sweeney Make the Grade?” was a protest against Sweeney’s “Path to Progress”, a sweeping set of cuts to the state’s public pension and healthcare systems that would leave public workers in the dust.

The organizations also delivered Sweeney a “failing grade” from the public, in contrast to his “A rating” from the public and corporate sector.

Unpacking the Path to Progress

According to Politico, the “Path to Progress” is a report written by a 25-member panel of economists and fiscal policy experts. The report includes dozens of recommendations for how to “curb the cost of government.”

If you aren’t already suspicious, you might be sleeping.

Proposed “Path to Progress” legislation includes a bill that would transfer newly-hired public employees, or employees with less time on the job into a hybrid-style pension and 401k system. Another bill would slash the state’s cost of health care costs.

Path To Poverty

The economists and fiscal policy experts who created the “Path to Progress” estimate that these cuts and reforms could save millions and billions of bucks in the short and long term.

Along with the draconian cuts to pension and healthcare costs, NJTV News reported that other key components of the “Path to Progress” is to consolidate smaller K-6 and K-8 districts into larger districts, pull tolls on interstate highways, and identify and leverage state assets.

“Unless you change the system, you can’t fix the system,” said Sweeney to members of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association (NJBIA) in a meeting touting the “Path to Progress” at their Trenton headquarters last month.

Not surprisingly, Sweeney places the blame for NJ’s financial woes on healthcare and pension spending.

“Our pensions and health care take up every single penny of new revenue. There is no money for anything unless we raise taxes. I for one have had enough of raising taxes,” Sweeney said.

CWA and NJ21United Fight Back

There is only one slight problem with trying to haphazardly broker poor solutions on the backs of workers to benefit the rich: Workers fight back, and they fight back hard.

NJ21United is a coalition of educators and community members who fight for issues such as unionized school employees and full funding for public education, and they are fiercely opposed to Sweeney’s “Path to Progress”.

The CWA partnered with NJ21United for this rally. James McAsey, CWA National Staff Representative and Mobilization Coordinator for the CWA’s New Jersey chapter, made his opposition to Sweeney and the “Path to Progress” clear as crystal.

Sweeney Is A Scab

“There’s a word we use for a union member who turns his back on other working class people, who stabs us in the back, who betrays us, who takes union dues and turns around and does everything he can to line the pockets of the rich and powerful: We call that person a scab. Steve Sweeney is a scab, a dirty rotten scab.”

Melissa Tomlinson is one of the powerhouse activist behind NJ21United. She spoke about some of the tactics Sweeney used to create friction between unions over the “Path to Progress”.

Divide And Conquer

“Part of the plan of any kind of oppressive structure is a divide-and-conquer strategy,” she explains. “Sweeney is using his union front, and kind of pitting unions against unions. The last town hall we went to in Atlantic county, we were actually fighting with Unite Here down from Atlantic City, the casino workers, because Sweeney had put a call-out to the union members to show up to support his “Path to Progress.”

After some discussion with Unite Here members, Melissa noted a bit of a change of opinion from the Sweeney opposition. “They got nervous, they were like ‘Wait a minute, why am I really here? I don’t necessarily agree with what Sweeney’s saying.’”

Where’s Phil?

One name that is notoriously absent from the discussion is Governor Phil Murphy, generally seen as a labor and public education advocate. Melissa says that the Murphy camp has been relatively silent on the “Path to Progress”, but says she is optimistic that support is there.

 “We haven’t really heard anything from Phil Murphy about this,” she explains. “I think his main concern is getting the millionaire’s tax passed and making sure that he can show that the revenue is there. He did say that he was going to put an amount into the pension which is more than has been put in the past. So, if we continue on that path, we will be able to have solvency within our pension, and such drastic changes as going to a hybrid plan, won’t even have to happen. By putting that payment in, we take it as a sign that Governor Murphy supports us.”

Evaluating Sweeney, Not Giving Up

The highlight of the rally was when NJ21United members delivered an “evaluation” of Sweeney based off his years of loyal service to the corporate sector he is beholden to, compared to his record representing actual constituents.

“We, the public workers of New Jersey, are here today to present Senate President Steve Sweeney with an evaluation of his job performance as a legislator who is accountable to the middle class working people in this state,” exclaimed Melissa into her megaphone.

Teachers Have Suffered

During her statements, Melissa noted the issues did not just start with Sweeney’s “Path to Progress”. She describes how public employees have been getting the shaft from Trenton for years. “Since 2011, public workers have carried the burden of the state’s failure to fully meet budgetary needs, to the detriment of our own financial health.”

Although the “Path to Progress” looms over what can be expected to be heated budget negotiations, the workers and activists behind organizations such as NJ21United and the CWA are not showing any signs of backing down

“I’m definitely not stopping any time soon,” says Melissa.

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