This article first appeared in Labor Notes.
Lea Chilelli, a steward in the Division of Developmental Disabilities in New Jersey, felt blindsided when Governor Chris Christie ordered the state shut down July 2. “There was chaos,” she said. “All my members were texting me finding out what was going on and what they should do. Management was clueless and they were telling people all different things.”
The New Jersey constitution requires that a budget be passed every year by July 1. When the legislature failed to do so, Christie ordered a state shutdown a little after midnight. Part of the shutdown involved locking out all state workers deemed “nonessential,” such as workers in state parks, in the Motor Vehicle Commission, and those processing unemployment claims.
But the lockout wasn’t actually about the state budget; it was a manufactured crisis by a governor who is now less popular than a root canal.
Christie wanted the legislature to give him access to the reserves of the state’s largest health care provider, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, saying he would build up the state’s Health and Wellness Fund. The Communications Workers of America (CWA) in New Jersey, the largest union of state workers, opposed the plan partly because Horizon would then have raised rates on the 3.8 million HBCBS policy holders, many of them CWA members.
Christie, who wants to impress President Trump with his unabashed avarice and braggadocio, threatened that if he didn’t get the money, he would veto funds for food assistance, preschool expansion, paid leave claims, and a host of other critical services.
When the legislature refused his demand, Christie threw a tantrum and shut the state down.
The 35,000 members of CWA NJ played a fierce role in battling to reopen the state.
How we made Christie blink
Here’s what we did:
Step one happened over the course of many decades and was the crucial step: we organized a strong internal structure of shop stewards.
Step two happened in the wake of Trump’s becoming president: we started building a statewide resistance movement, linking progressive unions with community organizations and new community-based resistance groups.
Among other actions, this movement turned out for weekly protests outside the offices of every New Jersey Republican congressman’s office, demanding they not repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Once it was clear a shutdown was imminent, we hosted a meeting of our partner organizations and held a lively press conference on Friday June 30.
Step three was to muster the real strength of the CWA, the stewards and members. We convened a Teletown Hall with thousands of members on the line. To keep members informed, we used emails, social media, and handbills at the worksite. Most important, stewards talked to their co-workers.
Because of decades of prior organizing, we were able to make a plan to mobilize tens of thousands of members to picket on July 5 and 6 outside the offices of Democratic legislators who were taking a crappy stance, essentially siding with Chris Christie.
But before we hit the streets as planned, Christie blinked and caved. It certainly helped that he was caught sunning himself at shuttered Island Beach State Park and was then caught lying about it. Public outrage was swift and ferocious, and showed us that even someone as shameless as Christie can still be shamed.
Back pay for the lockout
Although the state is open again, we are fighting for back pay for the days our members were locked out. We held a boisterous rally outside the statehouse on July 13. We filed a grievance and printed it on a big poster which hundreds of members signed.
The same day as the rally, the State Senate passed a bill to reimburse the workers for the time they were forced out. The State Assembly has also vowed to pass such a bill, and even Christie has promised to sign it.
But we know that not everything politicians promise our members comes to fruition, so we remain vigilant and ready to hit the streets again if there is any hint of reneging.