Thousands of firefighters, police officers protest Christie's plans in Trenton

Off-duty and retired police officers and firefighters fill a street outside the Statehouse at a rally against proposed union concessions.
Off-duty and retired police officers and firefighters fill a street outside the Statehouse at a rally against proposed union concessions.
Posted: March 04, 2011

TRENTON - Thousands of firefighters and police officers gathered outside the Statehouse on Thursday in a boisterous protest against Gov. Christie's efforts to wring concessions from them on health and pension benefits.

Chanting and waving signs, they also railed against the layoffs of public-safety employees around New Jersey, including in Camden, where nearly half the police force and a third of the Fire Department lost their jobs this year.

State police said the crowd was between 6,000 and 7,000, more than double the size of a rally of public workers last week, calling on the governor to preserve collective-bargaining rights.

Union leaders spoke out Thursday against adopting changes in their benefits through legislation, as Christie is advocating, rather than through contract negotiations.

Dozens of Democratic lawmakers delayed a voting session scheduled for 11 a.m. to march outside and pledge support for the crowd, in a sign that the Democratic-controlled Legislature may be breaking with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) during a year when all 120 seats are up for election.

Sweeney, a union ironworker who was booed throughout the rally, has proposed having all public employees pay between 12 and 30 percent of their health-care premiums depending on their salaries. Christie has called for all workers to pay 30 percent but also endorses the senator's plan.

The crowd, bearing signs that read "Christie and Sweeney, perfect together," repeatedly chanted, "We want Sweeney!" But the senator stayed inside the Statehouse.

Instead, protesters heard encouraging words from Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D., Union), and a stream of other legislators who pledged to support collective bargaining. Democrats described the governor as a protector of the wealthy - referring to his refusal to approve a so-called millionaire's tax - at the expense of the working class.

Republican lawmakers didn't address the crowd, but Assemblyman John Bramnick (R., Union) said at an earlier news conference that while he respects police and fire employees, changes must happen for economic reasons.

Christie said in last week's budget address that he would double property-tax relief for seniors and middle-income homeowners only if the Legislature voted for workers to pay more for health benefits. He also has made clear that he won't approve any millionaire's tax this year.

A firefighters union leader ramped up the pressure on Democrats to stand their ground against Christie, predicting that they would "finally start acting like a majority party or suffer the consequences."

"Speeches are great, but we want to know by [Democrats'] vote, are you with us or against us?" asked Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey Firemen's Mutual Benevolent Association.

Protesters hung a sign near the Statehouse steps quoting a statement made by Christie on the campaign trail in 2009 that public-safety workers' pensions would not be changed.

That was a lie, said Anthony Wieners, president of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association.

"We didn't choose this fight but . . . we're not running away from it!" he said.

Union leaders directed a steady stream of angry rhetoric at leaders in the Statehouse, with one saying the crowd was there to send the message, "Don't screw with us," and another calling Christie a disease and saying union members would ensure he was a one-term governor.

Christie wants to raise the retirement age and eliminate cost-of-living increases for retirees. He is calling for all public workers to pay 8.5 percent of their salaries to the pension system. Police and fire employees already contribute that amount.

The governor has criticized unions for opposing his efforts to change benefits through legislation. He said they supported such a move when it favored them, pointing to the 2001 approval by a Republican-controlled Legislature of a 9 percent pension increase. Christie now wants to roll it back.

Asked for his reaction to the screams outside, which could be heard in the governor's briefing room, Christie said during a news conference that he respected police and fire employees who do a hard job.

"However, that does not mean they're entitled to continue to receive benefits at the level they're receiving them," he said.

Christie said such rallies had "zero" effect on his decision-making process.

"I think they run the real risk of the taxpaying citizens of New Jersey coming to the conclusion that this is another me-first rally," he said.

A spokesman for Sweeney said in an e-mail that the senator respects and appreciates public-safety employees, but that when the average cost to taxpayers is $47,000 a year for their pension and health benefits, "it is clear that we need to have change."

Bill Wiltsey, a police officer in Gloucester City, said he had risked his life and sacrificed time with his family to do a job that protects people.

To not get the benefits he had been promised is "so infuriating I can't even find the words" to describe it, he said.

Dan Rossi, one of many Camden firefighters in the crowd, said nonunion employees should join with public-union workers because when the government "is done attacking us, they'll attack them."

Americans for Prosperity and other conservative groups held a counterprotest at last week's rally, but didn't come out on Thursday.

Steve Lonegan, director of the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity, said it would be redundant to appear again because the issue had been laid out clearly.

"The government-worker unions are the number-one driving force behind higher property taxes," he said.


Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 609-989-8990 or mrao@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Matt Katz contributed to this article.

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