When Gearhart left the airwaves, I thought the station might moderate the tone of its drive-time show. It had before: the truly odious Casey Bartholomew had been axed in 2011 to make way for the much more reasonable Deminski & Doyle (I've heard they each have relatives who are teachers). Maybe Gearhart's replacement would be less likely to take pot shots at teachers and their unions.
Looks like I was wrong:
"For the governor to talk about a $250 million cost cutting effort -- which is truthfully a drop in the bucket but still you've got to start somewhere -- and the NJEA just puts their foot down and says: 'No, we're not even going to discuss it,' is, I think, outrageous. I think it's time for teachers to start pushing back."
Bill, I'm a teacher, and I'm happy to push back -- at you.
You see, Bill, I talk to a lot of teachers too. And those teachers have watched while their take home pay has eroded and their health care costs have skyrocketed and their pensions have been devalued, even as their jobs have become more demanding. And they've all come to the same conclusion that I have:
For years, we were forced to pay more and get less on our benefits and pensions with the promise that the state would finally start paying what it promised us for work we have already done. But the state has never followed through. So we're not going to make our families sacrifice any more until we see some sign that the state is going to follow through on its legally binding commitments.
Just in case anyone doubts what I'm saying, let's have a little history review. This timeline from the Communications Workers of America is a good place to start; with a few minor changes, it could describe the continued screwing of just about every public employee in the state.
- 1995: Governor Jim Florio begins the modern era of New Jersey pension underfunding.
- 1997: Governor Christie Todd Whitman essentially pays for tax cuts by underfunding the pensions.
- 2001: Yes, Governor Donald DiFrancesco does raise pension benefits, but he does so basically using the same sort of revaluation tactics that Florio and Whitman had used. I find it funny that so many of the state's conservatives are appalled at DiFrancesco's revaluations, which befitted workers, while they say nothing about Whitman's revaluations, which led to tax cuts.
- 2004: Teachers' mandatory contribution to the pension, which had been as low as 3 percent, is raised to 5 percent.
- 2007: By now, everyone (except Chris Christie) knew the pensions were in trouble and had to be fixed. Teachers and state workers now paid 5.5 percent into their pensions and saw the retirement age go up 5 years. State workers now paid 1.5 percent of their pay to health benefits. The deal everyone agrees to is that in exchange for these concessions the state will start funding the pensions.
Those payments lasted only about two years.
- 2008: The state raises the retirement age again.
- 2011: After running a campaign in which he said explicitly: "Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor," Chris Christie, with the support of many Democrats in the Legislature, passes a sweeping pension and benefits overhaul law. As CWA explains:
The plan for increased worker contributions is phased in over four years. At the end, in 2015, workers pay 25% more to get 30% less pension. Workers are required to pay an increasing amount of the health care premium, with a top rate of 35% of premium for the highest earners. The state budget includes a 1/7th payment for FY12. Christie makes the payment on the final day of the fiscal year, in June 2012. In response to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, the legislature creates a contractual right to the funding of the pension.- 2013: During the gubernatorial election, no one in the press cares to ask either Chris Christie or his opponent, Barbara Buono, how they plan to raise the revenues for a full pension payment by 2017.
- 2014: To the surprise of no one sentient, Christie refuses to make the payments his own law requires. Meanwhile, reports begin to surface about inordinately high management fees paid to Wall Street firms linked to Christie. The unions file suit.
- 2015: Reports of malfeasance in the management of the pensions continue. The fourth year of the 2011 Ben-Pen law starts: a teacher making $65K now pays at least 19% of her premium for family medical coverage. As NJ Spotlight notes:
Today, however, while the cost of New Jersey public employee health insurance coverage remains the third-highest in the nation, most New Jersey public employees are paying more than the national average for state government workers toward their health insurance costs, an NJ Spotlight analysis shows.
In fact, the average New Jersey government employee is paying more for individual health insurance coverage than government workers in any other state and the 10th-highest average premium for family coverage in the country.
Further, state and local government workers are paying a much higher percentage of the cost of their individual health insurance policies than private-sector employees in New Jersey have been paying, and not much less than the percentage paid by the state’s private-sector workers for family coverage. [emphasis mine]Meanwhile, New Jersey's public employee pensions have devolved into one of the least generous in the nation, according to a New Jersey Policy Perspective analysis. And yet the state's highest court rules New Jersey doesn't have to fund the pensions, and can instead set the state up for a looming disaster.
Christie's only policy response to all of this is to appoint a commission to put out a plan that everyone with any sense knows can't possibly work.
And so here we are, halfway through 2016 and not a serious plan in sight for how to deal with any of this. As I've shown here (again, thanks to CWA for their excellent timeline), the teachers and police officers and firefighters and state workers have been making sacrifices for years, each premised on the idea that if we just give up some more, the state will finally do the right thing and start paying its fair share.
Well, every time we've paid more, the state has screwed us over. Our pension payments were 3 percent not very long ago; now they're 7.5 percent, our COLA is under attack, and our benefits are worse. Our health care was a negotiated part of our total compensation; now the state has compelled us to pay up to 35 percent of our premiums, and the care we're getting is worse.
And this has all been during a period when our raises were shrinking -- and we were already behind the private sector to begin with.
Bill, I'm sure the NJEA would support all sorts of health care insurance reforms for its members if those reforms saved money without diminishing care. In fact, reports from your own radio station confirm this:
Bill, when you say the NJEA won't even discuss changes to health benefits, you're dead wrong -- again, according to your own reporters. What NJEA won't do, what the teachers of this state won't do, and what every public employee won't do anymore is to continue getting the shaft by giving up more in compensation without the state paying its agreed upon fair share.
New Jersey public employees are the only ones who have made their full payments into the pension system. We and our families are the only ones who've made pension and health care sacrifices in an effort to fix a mess we didn't create. But now, we refuse to continue to be patsies.
After all of our previous concessions, we're not going to give up one more damn thing until this state starts meeting its obligations once and for all.
One more thing, Bill: if you want to try to play the game where you separate teachers from the union leaders, good luck. I've never agreed with my union about everything; I don't think any public employee is ever 100 percent aligned with his union. But I damn sure trust my union way more than I'll ever trust Chris Christie or the Democrats who supported his repeated screwing of public employees.
If there is dissension in my union right now, it's largely because there are who members don't think NJEA has fought hard enough against the steady erosion of our pay, our benefits, and our workplace rights. Whether that's true or not remains an open question; what's not open to debate is whether teachers and other public employees think they have been treated fairly over the last few years. I guarantee you they have had enough of giving and giving and giving and getting nothing back in return.
These are decent, hardworking people who do important jobs. They teach our kids and protect our streets and put out our fires and build our bridges and provide social services to our neediest and work hard to keep vital governmental services available to the citizens of New Jersey. They have, perhaps grudgingly, made many sacrifices to try to keep this state afloat.
But they aren't suckers.
ADDING: Bill, it takes a lot for me to give up on a media figure. Want to hash this out? Drop me a line.
* It's a joke. Well, not really...