How New Jersey Workers Made Chris Christie Blink and Saved the State from a Disastrous Shutdown

Jim McAsey

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie speaks during the 'Managing the Disruption' conference held at the Tideline Ocean Resort on April 3, 2017 in Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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.

Jim McAsey is Mobi­liza­tion Coor­di­na­tor for CWA New Jersey.
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