One more lost opportunity to avoid looking foolish

CODA

GREG BEAN

I wonder if anybody at the New Jersey Education Association took a look at what was happening in Wisconsin last week and said, “Man, as much as we don’t like Chris Christie, things could get a whole lot worse around here.”

Last week, the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison looked a lot like a Mideast nation, with all the teachers and public employees who called in “sick” so they could attend the demonstration. Even more of them turned up than when all those state workers took a day off a few years ago so they could demonstrate in Trenton against the policies of former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine.

But instead of demanding freedom, the Wisconsin teachers were demanding that the state not take away the public employees unions’ right to collective bargaining on issues like benefits and contributions to health plans, while still allowing them to bargain on wages (although the law before the Legislature would set increases based on rises in the Consumer Price Index). The Wisconsin law exempts police and firefighters.

Similar laws are under consideration in several other states, including Tennessee, where a law outright abolishing collective bargaining rights for teachers is working its way through the state Senate.

So far, nobody in New Jersey is talking about taking away the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other public employees, andwith the current political makeup of the Assembly and Senate, a bill like that would have a hard time getting passed. But even so, you’d think this might be a good time for unions like the New Jersey Education Association to lie low and not draw undue attention to themselves. Itmight be a good time to avoid making taxpayers, and others who have really suffered in the economic crisis, madder than they already are.

After all, in Wisconsin they’re looking at a $1.8 billion shortfall in the FY 2012 budget, and New Jersey is looking at a whopping $10.47 billion shortfall. At least we’re better off than the poor taxpayers in California, where the shortfall is projected at $25.40 billion.

I believe that collective bargaining is a good thing, and has protected a lot of workers over the years. I wouldn’t want teachers and other public employees to lose that right in our state. But considering that New Jersey’s projected shortfall is $8.67 billion greater than Wisconsin’s, you might think that unions here might back off a little bit before people start getting even angrier, and start getting ideas.

But nope, true to form, the NJEA has used this opportunity to once more show how out of touch it is with the people whose taxes pay the bills.

On Feb. 18, the NJEA — which has absolutely disgraced itself in the last couple of years, at one point even sending out a “humorous” internal memo that wished Christie dead — fired off a press release excoriating Christie for saying he supports what the NJEA calls Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s “efforts to destroy the economic rights of that state’s public employees.”

“We’ve known it all along, and now it’s official: Chris Christie has no respect for the teachers, school staff, and all public employees of New Jersey,” NJEA President Barbara Keshishian said. “He wants them to bear the brunt of the economic crisis.”

Just think about that last sentence for a minute.

Do you think the 8.7 percent of the state’s unemployed labor force counted in New Jersey’s most recent employment statistics think asking teachers here to take smaller raises and contribute more to their health plans and pensions is bearing the brunt of the crisis? How about the thousands who’ve been out of work so long they’re no longer counted in the statistics? How about the multitudes who have lost jobs that actually supported them and their families, and have been forced to take much-lowerpaying positions to bring some income into their homes?

Or how about every city and town in the state, where local leaders are scrambling to keep the lights on in the face of greatly reduced state aid?

Do you think Newark Mayor Cory Booker, whose administration had to lay off 167 cops to help close an $83 million shortfall in the 2011 budget, believes teachers are being asked to bear the brunt of the crisis? How about the citizens of Newark, who are living through an unprecedented spike in the crime rate, in large part because there aren’t enough cops on the street to control it?

In stories reported in last week’s Greater Media Newspapers, Holmdel announced a big layoff and furlough proposal to help offset a $587,846 reduction in state aid. In Old Bridge, they’re looking at massive layoffs and school closings. In the FreeholdRegionalHigh School District, where the towns that make up the district have already had big layoffs and cutbacks, and where lots of teacher layoffs have already taken place, they’re down to instituting a payto play plan for kids who participate in athletics or clubs to help make ends meet. In Middletown, where they’re looking at a $4.4 million budget gap, officials have filed a “worst case” plan with the state Civil Service Commission that calls for cutting 26 more municipal positions, including police.

On and on it goes, and those were just a sampling of the dramas playing out in nearly every incorporated municipality in New Jersey last week, as leaders attempt to cut even closer to the bone than they’ve already cut in the last few fiscal cycles.

Do you think you could find a single soul sweating over the budget in those towns and cities who thinks New Jersey’s teachers and public employees are being asked to bear the brunt of the crisis by contributing more to their health plans and taking smaller raises?

If you know of one, I’d sure like to talk to that person, because there aren’t many people in this state who believe that — and they don’t believe it because it’s absurd.

The old proverb says, “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Maybe it’s time for the folks at the NJEAto zip it, although I personally think it’s already too late.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.