TRENTON, NJ (AP / CBSNewYork) - Thousands of unionized public workers protested outside the New Jersey Statehouse on Thursday against legislation that would require a half-million government employees to make sharply higher health care and pension contributions, even staging a mock funeral procession attacking Democrats who are supporting the changes.
More than 8,000 protesters amassed at the Statehouse complex as the bill, which resets public employee benefits so they are more in line with the private sector, was headed to the Assembly after having already cleared the Senate. Republican Gov. Chris Christie was expected to sign the legislation as soon as it reached his desk.
The third rally in eight days produced the biggest demonstration yet, according to state police crowd estimates. A protest last week drew about 3,500.
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Union workers staged a New Orleans-style funeral procession, complete with a brass band and a black hearse with a sign draped on it reading "The Soul of Democratic Party.''
The benefits legislation was fast-tracked through the Legislature after the Republican governor struck a deal with Democrats who control the Legislature and GOP legislative leaders. The measure has driven a wedge into the state Democratic Party. It fostered feelings of betrayal among organized labor and resentment among beleaguered taxpayers who believe public worker benefits are too rich.
Union leadership and many Democrats remain opposed to the legislation, in part because the accord imposes health insurance changes on public workers through legislation rather than through collective bargaining.
"Everyone had to compromise to come together. ... (Thursday) is a big day to watch that get done,'' Christie told constituents at a town hall meeting Wednesday in Fair Lawn.
"New Jersey has been using grains of sand to address this problem, but it's going to take boulders put in place to address this,'' Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver told The Associated Press. "It's unpleasant, it doesn't have broad bipartisan support. The members of my party do not support this.''
The bill requires teachers, police, firefighters and other public employees to pay a portion of their health care premiums based on income. An employee earning $60,000 who now pays $900 toward health insurance would see their yearly costs rise to $2,056 for single coverage or $3,230 for a family plan, after a four-year phase-in.
People who are already retired, and those with at least 20 years of service, would continue to get free health care in retirement. Collective bargaining over health care would resume in four years.
Workers' pension contributions would also rise by at least 1 percent of salary immediately; some workers would see an additional increase phased in. For example, teachers would see their pension contributions increase from 5.5 percent to 6.5 percent of salary now and by an additional 1 percent over seven years. Police and firefighters' contributions would increase to 10 percent, from 8.5 percent, immediately.
Retirees' cost-of-living adjustments would be suspended.
The pension and health benefits systems are underfunded by a combined $110 billion. Proponents like Christie say the changes are needed to shore up the systems and guarantee future pension benefits.
Other states have also been seeking to force public employees to pay more for benefits and limit collective bargaining rights. A GOP-led effort in Wisconsin calls for public workers to pay more for health and pension benefits beginning in late August unless a lawsuit by a coalition of unions is successful.
In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich in March signed a law limiting bargaining rights, which has yet to go into effect. And in Michigan, the Republican state Senate has passed measures to require most public employees to cover at least 20 percent of the cost of buying their health insurance coverage, with some flexibility for local bargaining units.
The Massachusetts House passed a bill in late April stripping public-sector unions of the right to bargain over health care.
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