Unions rally for ‘deal’ on state health benefits

TRENTON – René Demuynck is rather optimistic.

As hundreds of public union workers dressed in different colored identification shirts demonstrated outside the Statehouse today, Demuynck, a steward with CWA Local 1037, said he was confident the sustained and often noisy display would do good.

So confident that when asked if the rally would help the union’s cause, Demuynck replied, “F…. Yes.”

He praised Phil Murphy as being a great friend of the worker, adding: “Hopefully he’s here to get a deal done.”

If Murphy was indeed “making a deal,” we won’t find out until Wednesday morning.

That’s when the usually obscure State Health Benefits Commission meets to decide how much public sector workers will contribute next year to their health insurance premiums. A first proposal provided for a rather vertiginous increase of 20 to 24%.

That, said those gathered today, would be outrageous. After all, many public workers are not well paid in the first place.

They made their feelings known in a spirited midday rally that included fiery speeches and chants accompanied by drums.

“All day, all night, health care is a human right,” was a chant.

Another was, “You say louder, you say fairer, we won’t take it anymore.”

It was a takeoff on Murphy’s signature line of making New Jersey “stronger and fairer.”

As Demuynck noted, the governor has been embraced by public unions since his first candidacy in 2017.

Even today – some five years later – he likes to attack the anti-union attitude of his predecessor, Chris Christie.

So it’s really hard to believe that Murphy will step aside and just allow such increases to take place. In addition to workers, the proposed increase has also been criticized by lawmakers from both parties and local governments, which contribute to employee health insurance costs.

One of the reasons for the impending surge revolves around COVID.

A fact sheet released by the Treasury Department, which oversees health benefits, said higher contributions are needed as more employees have used health services during the pandemic. Additionally, elective procedures that were postponed during the pandemic are now underway.

Even if all of this is true, speakers pointed out that a 20% dues increase would be extraordinarily high. So why not try to negotiate a lower raise? And indeed, in many cases, it was civil servants who stayed on during the height of the pandemic.

There was an interesting diversity in the demonstration; it included unions from all sides of the political spectrum.

Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State PBA, said it was important to speak out, but he was not at all convinced the rally would do any good.

Obviously, not everyone is optimistic.

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