TRENTON, NJ (AP / CBSNewYork) – Thousands of unionized public workers protested outside the New Jersey Statehouse on Thursday against legislation that would require a half-million government employees to make sharply higher health care and pension contributions, even staging a mock funeral procession attacking Democrats who are supporting the changes.

More than 8,000 protesters amassed at the Statehouse complex as the bill, which resets public employee benefits so they are more in line with the private sector, was headed to the Assembly after having already cleared the Senate. Republican Gov. Chris Christie was expected to sign the legislation as soon as it reached his desk.

The third rally in eight days produced the biggest demonstration yet, according to state police crowd estimates. A protest last week drew about 3,500.

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Union workers staged a New Orleans-style funeral procession, complete with a brass band and a black hearse with a sign draped on it reading “The Soul of Democratic Party.”

The benefits legislation was fast-tracked through the Legislature after the Republican governor struck a deal with Democrats who control the Legislature and GOP legislative leaders. The measure has driven a wedge into the state Democratic Party. It fostered feelings of betrayal among organized labor and resentment among beleaguered taxpayers who believe public worker benefits are too rich.

Union leadership and many Democrats remain opposed to the legislation, in part because the accord imposes health insurance changes on public workers through legislation rather than through collective bargaining.

“Everyone had to compromise to come together. … (Thursday) is a big day to watch that get done,” Christie told constituents at a town hall meeting Wednesday in Fair Lawn.

“New Jersey has been using grains of sand to address this problem, but it’s going to take boulders put in place to address this,” Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver told The Associated Press. “It’s unpleasant, it doesn’t have broad bipartisan support. The members of my party do not support this.”

The bill requires teachers, police, firefighters and other public employees to pay a portion of their health care premiums based on income. An employee earning $60,000 who now pays $900 toward health insurance would see their yearly costs rise to $2,056 for single coverage or $3,230 for a family plan, after a four-year phase-in.

People who are already retired, and those with at least 20 years of service, would continue to get free health care in retirement. Collective bargaining over health care would resume in four years.

Workers’ pension contributions would also rise by at least 1 percent of salary immediately; some workers would see an additional increase phased in. For example, teachers would see their pension contributions increase from 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent of salary now and by an additional 1 percent over seven years. Police and firefighters’ contributions would increase to 10 percent, from 8.5 percent, immediately.

Retirees’ cost-of-living adjustments would be suspended.

The pension and health benefits systems are underfunded by a combined $110 billion. Proponents like Christie say the changes are needed to shore up the systems and guarantee future pension benefits.

Other states have also been seeking to force public employees to pay more for benefits and limit collective bargaining rights. A GOP-led effort in Wisconsin calls for public workers to pay more for health and pension benefits beginning in late August unless a lawsuit by a coalition of unions is successful.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich in March signed a law limiting bargaining rights, which has yet to go into effect. And in Michigan, the Republican state Senate has passed measures to require most public employees to cover at least 20 percent of the cost of buying their health insurance coverage, with some flexibility for local bargaining units.

The Massachusetts House passed a bill in late April stripping public-sector unions of the right to bargain over health care.

(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.)

Comments (5)
  1. TG says:

    I pay $2,542 per year for basic coverage for a family of four. But wait! Before the plan pays a single penny, I have to also pay a $500 deductible. Then, after I have paid $3092 between those two items, they will maybe pay anywhere from 75-90% of any other charges. My “maximum out of pocket” is $4,375, but that doesn’t count $3,092, so my “max out of pocket” is really $7,467. And of course that is only if I stay “in network”. If I go out of network, my “max out of pocket” is $11,842, but anything over what they consider “Reasonable and Customary” doesn’t count. Have you ever found an out of network provider that actually charges “Reasonable and Customary”??? So, if my family doesn’t need ANY medical treatment all year, it will cost me a minimum of $2,542 and the sky is the limit if I have to go out of network. It is hard for me to feel sympathy for the state workers having to contribute more when it is still not even close to what we in the private sector have to pay.

    1. Howie Sprague says:

      How do you rationalize this statement? Are you qualified to decide what these people are worth in salary, benefits & pension? Are you paid more than they are? Folks need to get over their feeling that people who work for state, local or federal government don’t have a right to a living wage, benefits & pension. Most of these people are likely to be making lower middle class salaries and instead of a higher wage up front, they earn money toward a pension which the employer directly contributes to the pension fund where it is invested and earns interest.

  2. Howie Sprague says:

    It’s criminal the way the GOP is misleading the public about municipal pensions, blaming the workers for pension fund shortfalls and blaming the pensions for municipal fiscal woes. In many cases, the pension fund shortfalls are due to the municipality underfunding for many years. In N.J., former governor Christie Todd Whitman illegally used $85 billion to fund a tax break in an effort to win her re-election bid. It’s also misleading to say that, “the bill, which resets public employee benefits so they are more in line with the private sector…” as the public employees generally are lower salaried which is a trade off for funding the pension. It’s the fault of the municipalities that the pensions are underfunded. Once again, the GOP takes from the middle class while cutting expenses for the rich and providing corporate welfare for wealthy corporations.

  3. LazyUnionWorker says:

    Waaaaaahhhh! I’m a union worker. I want a six, figure, annual, pension. Waaaaaah!! And I want to retire at 50. Waaahhhhh!!! And I want you to pay for it!! Waaaaaahhhhhhh!!!!!!

    1. Howie Sprague says:

      Your statement is typical of folks who have been misinformed by the GOP and FOX ‘NEWS’. If your employer were to take away your retirement that you earned or cut into the pay that you earned and which you rely upon to support your family, you too would be expressing outrage. The goal of the GOP is to turn public and private sector workers against each other (divide and conquer) so that these corporate fat cats who are currently holding elected office can change laws and fund tax breaks for themselves, their wealthy supporters, major corporations at the expense of the middle class, the elderly and the disabled.

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