TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) – Labor leaders rallying for collective bargaining rights in New Jersey went on the offensive Thursday with one comparing Gov. Chris Christie to Adolf Hitler and two Democratic legislative leaders to his generals, one day after the three agreed on a deal to sharply restrict state employee bargaining rights and increase health care costs.
“Welcome to Nazi Germany,” Christopher Shelton, international vice president of the Communication Workers of America’s District 1, told the large crowd gathered on the Statehouse lawn. “It’s going to take World War III to get rid of Adolf Christie.”
Thousands took to the Statehouse lawn chanting “Bargaining rights are American rights,” and carrying signs that read “Negotiate, don’t legislate.
“I think (Christie) is doing the same thing that Scott Walker is doing in Wisconsin,” Lee Saunders, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME, told The Associated Press. “It’s unacceptable to preclude us from the right to collectively bargain for our rights.”
The rally was planned before Christie, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver struck a deal Wednesday that calls for legislation, instead of collective bargaining, to require the state’s 500,000 government employees to pay a portion of their health care premiums based on income. At the same time, workers are also being asked to contribute more toward their pensions.
The deal was brokered with mostly support from Republicans and a few Democrats.
Several Democratic lawmakers told the rally they opposed the deal. That group included Senator Ray Lesniak and Assemblymen Daniel Benson, Patrick Diegnan, Wayne DeAngelo, Reed Gusciora, Vincent Prieto.
“Today is the difference between sheep and lions,” Gusciora, D-Princeton, said. “There’s a lot of sheep inside while the lions are out here protecting workers’ rights.”
DeAngelo, D-Hamilton, told the crowd, “I’m not inside because my mind is already made up.”
Inside the Statehouse, a Senate budget committee was considering the bill sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, an official with the ironworkers union. The Assembly is set to consider the bill next week.
Even as Sweeney spoke, union members at the rally chanted “Sweeney is a rat,” with some pointing to a 10-foot inflatable rat holding a sign that read: “Pension Betrayal.”
Workers also brought along a coffin with a sign that says “The death of collective bargaining.”
“I view this as union busting,” said Jersey City police officer Mark Razzoli, who accused lawmakers of trying to turn the public against public workers when he said lawmakers deserved blame for raiding the pension system in flush years.
“Not that long ago we were heroes, you know,” Razzoli said. “I was at ground zero, as many other people were. It is disgraceful what is going on here.”
Christie said public employees in New Jersey will eventually thank him and the leaders of the Democratic-majority for saving their pensions.
“New Jersey is setting a model for dealing with these problems in an honest, forthright and bipartisan way,” the governor said Thursday.
Lou Venezia, a 33-year-old firefighter in Bloomfield, wasn’t in a thanking mood when he compared lawmakers to criminals.
“I’m down here protesting all the pimps, thieves, prostitutes and racketeers,” Venezia said, “and I’m not at Trenton State Prison, I’m at the Statehouse.”
There was a call for some temperance.
Lesniak, D-Elizabeth, who was opposed by the NJEA in a tough primary election last week, pledged his support but urged Democrats to distance themselves from inflammatory genocide remarks.
“We cannot support equating Chris Christie and Steve Sweeney and Sheila Oliver with Nazis,” Lesniak said. “We support your rights totally, but we cannot be associated with those comments.”
More rallies are planned for next week.
(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)