Police, firefighters to rally at NJ Statehouse on Thurs.

March 1, 2011 11:11:51 AM PST
Up to 10,000 off-duty and retired police and firefighters are expected to rally on behalf of public safety outside the New Jersey Statehouse on Thursday.

Union officials say public safety workers want the governor and Legislature to know layoffs, retirements and unfilled positions have made towns and cities less safe for public servants and residents.

"This rally started as a groundswell," said Police Benevolent Association President Jim Ryan. "Members want their faces to be seen. They want the elected officials to know how these decisions impact their lives - the police and firefighters are less safe, there is less backup, crime is rising."

Crime is up for the first time in four years, and with 3,200 fewer municipal police officers than a year ago. Critics of Gov. Chris Christie's 2 percent property tax limit say public safety will continue to suffer because mayors, as of Jan. 1, must budget within that constraint.

The unions also want to send a loud signal to Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney that they oppose proposals to significantly increase the amount public employees pay for health care.

Bill Lavin, who represents 5,500 firefighters as president of the Firemen's Mutual Benevolent Association, says the rally is "to renew our contract with the taxpayers - to let them know what's really going on."

This will be the second Statehouse rally within a week. About 3,100 rallied Friday to support Wisconsin state workers, whose collective bargaining rights are being threatened. New Jersey's AFL-CIO hosted that event, but 57 unions joined in solidarity.

Lavin said public teachers and university professors are among the union members who have been notified of the rally via e-mail and radio ads, and invited to join. Public workers from Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan are also expected. Barbara Keshishian, president of the public teachers union most often vilified by Christie, is among the scheduled speakers, said New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Baker.

The tea party staged a far smaller counter-rally last week and plans to do so again.

Only workers who are off-duty or retired are being encouraged to attend; no sick-outs or work slowdowns are planned.

Christie has proposed changing the health care system for current workers that would make plans less generous and more costly. Christie's plan would have workers contributing 30 percent of the cost of their premium, far more than the 1.5 percent of salary they do now. Sweeney has proposed employee contributions of 12 to 30 percent based on income.

Christie has said the changes are necessary for the health care system to stay afloat and for municipalities and the state to shoulder less of ever-increasing employee health care costs. Sweeney agrees, saying his proposal would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars once fully phased in in seven years, while not putting such a heavy burden on workers that they can't afford benefits.

The unions oppose the plans, saying health benefits should be collectively bargained. They say they were tapped for a contribution of 1.5 percent of salary for health care just last year.