Traffic Flows Despite N.j. Toll Dispute Toll Takers Were Back On The Job. Union And Highway Officials Remained At Odds Over Contract Negotiations.

Posted: July 05, 1995

A lockout, a sickout, verbal fireworks between highway officials and unions - nothing seemed to impede the smooth flow of traffic on the New Jersey

Turnpike and Garden State Parkway as the long holiday weekend ended yesterday.

Turnpike and parkway toll takers were back in their booths last night after yielding to court orders, even though their contract talks were sputtering. And the traffic backups, said those who have seen many, were no worse than in any other year.

The appearance of normalcy on the roads and at toll plazas, however, camouflaged a simmering anger among union officials and one of the most turbulent negotiating seasons in recent state history.

Frank Forst, founder of the turnpike local, said the highway officials were taking instruction from the Whitman administration.

"It's a conspiracy by the state, devised by (state chief negotiator Jerold) Glassman about how to defeat the unions," a hoarse Forst said yesterday. "Their message to the unions is, submit or die."

Whitman has said she has nothing to do with the talks between the turnpike and parkway authorities and their unions, but the authorities' offers are so similar to those the governor has proposed to other state workers that Forst and other officials for the roadworkers' unions say she must be calling the shots.

"Contract talks have never been easy in New Jersey. But this is worse,

because the state is asking for givebacks on benefits and offering little in return," said Charles Coleman, associate professor of management at Rutgers University's Camden campus and an expert on labor-management relations.

"I don't think Whitman will ever be characterized as a friend of workers," Coleman said. He said he expected that the strike and sickout that marred the past weekend would not be the last work action of this contract- negotiating season.

Displeased with the state of talks, Garden State Parkway toll takers - members of local 196 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) - called in sick for their 6 a.m. shift yesterday, one of the busiest highway travel days of the year. But the parkway authority managed to keep traffic flowing.

In the afternoon, a snaking line of northbound traffic moved slowly toward the Garden State Parkway's Great Egg Harbor toll booth, where a skeleton crew worked the second shift.

The cars and vans and trucks and motorcycles came in a colorful procession, chrome winking under an uncertain sun, as three summer hires worked full-tilt to keep the flow going.

"I travel this road a lot," said Jack Saunders, a salesman who gassed up the family cruiser for the ride home to Elizabeth, N.J. "No matter what time of the day it is, no matter where you're going, sometimes you're going to get stuck - strike or not."

Things seemed to be going pretty smoothly, said Ellen Kessler of New York City. She was headed north from Cape May to meet friends at Long Beach Island.

"I've seen traffic jams worse than this," she said. "This is really no problem."

New Jersey Highway Authority spokesman Dennis Ingoglia said that the authority had been training part-time summer workers, nonunion clerics and middle-management workers to staff the booths for just such an event, and it had workers in place for all 100 or so union workers who called in sick.

The sickout continued for the 2:30 p.m. shift, when 72 of 80 union workers failed to report. Ingoglia said the parkway lost no money because of the job action.

About 70 percent of the parkway's toll booths are exact-change machines, so the highway authority figured the sickout would pose little disruption for yesterday's million or more expected motorists.

Meanwhile, Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone granted the authority's request for a restraining order against the union, which required the workers to return to work by their 10:30 shift last night.

The parkway events seemed like a rerun of what occurred Monday between the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and its union workers. The leaders of IFPTE 194 called a strike, and toll takers and others walked off the job at 6 a.m., which forced the Turnpike Authority to scramble for replacements. It eventually staffed the tolls, but for eight hours motorists enjoyed a free ride, and the Turnpike Authority lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A Superior Court judge ordered the union members back to their jobs, but the authority then turned the tables and prohibited workers from staffing the booths Monday night and all day yesterday.

Some called the move a lockout, and the authority stood to recoup some of the lost toll revenues by having the booths manned by part-timers earning $12 per hour rather than union workers who would have been paid up to $50 per hour for working the holiday shift.

Roger E. Nutt, the Turnpike Authority's executive director, insisted the move was not a lockout. The authority merely wanted to ensure that its tolls were manned, and it did not know whether it could rely on the union strikers to show up as ordered, he said.

"If we didn't want these people to come back to work, we wouldn't have sought a court order," Nutt said.

Nutt laid out ground rules for returning union workers that, among other things, required them to call their supervisors five hours ahead of the start of their shift each day to confirm that they planned to show up.

Those who did not, or who participated in a sickout or on-the-job work slowdown, would be punished and could be fired, Nutt warned.

Turnpike officials said that traffic is about 500,000 vehicles a day most days, but that they were expecting 600,000 vehicles yesterday because of the holiday.

The dispute between the turnpike and parkway authorities and their unions centers on wages and a demand that workers contribute toward health benefits - the very issues stalling contract talks between the Whitman administration and the other state workers' unions.

Whitman has said she is merely trying to streamline government and keep costs down.

But union officials say she is trying to pay for her 30 percent state income tax cut on the backs of state workers.

"She's trying to get the unions to buy into contracts that will help her live up to her promise of a tax cut," Coleman said.

That is why she has consistently demanded agreements with state unions that impose zero wage gains in initial years and force workers to share health-care costs, Coleman said.

And that is the kind of contract that officials of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees agreed to Monday.

"During the '80s, when there were private-sector layoffs, and in the early '90s, when companies wanted their employees to help pay medical costs, the New Jersey public-work sector remained insulated from that," Coleman said. ''Now, we're getting caught up. Whitman's just doing what's been happening in the private sector for years."

Whitman denies involvement in the talks involving the turnpike and parkway authorities, though she acknowledged Monday that officials from the two authorities could be taking their lead from what she has demanded in negotiations with the other state workers' unions.

But Forst, now a consultant to his union on contract talks, said that time and again turnpike negotiators had to stop talks to get direction from Trenton on how to proceed.

Forst criticized the Whitman administration for trying to bring state workers into line with the private sector. In the private sector, he said, while corporate profits are up, wages have stagnated, and corporations are forcing workers to pick up a greater share of health-care costs.

"People with money are just trying to shove workers into a hole. Corporation profits are up. Stock profits are up. But the people at work get nothing," Forst said.

"That's why there's a malaise in the country. That's why there's a supposed recovery, but the middle class isn't feeling it," Forst said. "The rich are keeping the money to themselves. They're saying the rest of us aren't entitled to the American dream."

Turnpike officials counter that union workers are not hurting financially. They say the average toll taker, for instance, makes $50,000 a year, including overtime. Some toll takers make more than $60,000, they say.

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