This action apparently did not go unnoticed by Department of Transportation Commissioner James Simpson. At a hearing of the Assembly State Governance Committee today, it became apparent that Simpson got the message and in the last several months his office went from cooperation to obstruction in dealing with the toll collectors on the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway.
While the hearings, which were held in a packed meeting room, were ostensibly billed as a discussion of the privatization of toll collection services, it became quickly apparent that this initiative is another move by the Christie administration to punish union workers.
Assemblywoman and Committee Chair Linda Stender (D-Scotch Plains) opened the hearing, commenting that she felt the effort to privatize toll collectors was a “Trojan horse” in the governor’s war on collective bargaining. She led off the hearings with Commissioner Simpson (who also serves as Chair of the Turnpike Authority), who testified along with Veronique Hakim, Executive Director of the Turnpike Authority. Stender accused Simpson of not negotiating with the union in good faith and making the privatization process non-transparent.
Simpson’s obfuscation and uncooperativeness were apparent from the outset. He said that he would be unable to answer certain questions due to a pending lawsuit, and chose that off-ramp several times. Amazingly, he claimed to be unaware of specific salaries for toll collectors in adjacent states, and could not comment as to whether a simple majority or supermajority of his commissioners was required to decide on granting the toll collection tasks to a for-profit firm. An RFP to privatize toll collection calls for a $12/hour rate, about half of what the current work force earns, and Simpson was unconcerned that even if the current work force (most of whom have decades of experience and will be unable to find work in today’s environment) is re-hired by a for-profit company, the proposed salaries are so low that many will qualify for government assistance. Others others will collect unemployment – costs to the taxpayers that Simpson did not take into account in his “savings” calculation. On the other hand, Simpson acknowledged that the RFP set no limits on the salary of the CEO or profit margins for the potential for-profit toll collection company.
In response to Simpson’s assertion that the slashing of salaries was for the “greater good” of the state, Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Delran) pointed out that the hundreds of toll workers are part of the “greater good.” Conaway was persistent in his questioning about the overall impact (for example, do the alleged savings really represent a shifting of costs to public assistance?), but Hakim and Simpson repeatedly did not answer the questions. The Burlington County legislator accused the Christie administration of mistreatment of the toll collectors to enhance the governor’s national reputation.
Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) pointed out that the union already agreed to $16 million in concessions and that the state has refused to engage in further negotiations. Schaer rhetorically asked: If the toll collectors were not unionized, would the state be pursuing this initiative?
The lone Republican on the panel, Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R-Freehold) had the unenviable task of defending the Christie position, and was unable to do so effectively. She pointed out that privatization is not just a Christie initiative, citing Senate President Sweeney – not exactly a paragon of Democratic party values. Also, Casagrande inadvertently showed how the state treats its teachers, commenting that toll collectors are making more money than our educators. The Republican Assemblywoman cited anecdotal evidence of misconduct by toll collectors, but Chairwoman Stender quickly reminded everyone that these hearings are about fairness as well as fiscal issues. Just like she was acluistic about the side effects of bounty hunting auditors, Casagrande did not seem to care about the impact to state workers.
Union leaders Charles Wowkanech (President of NJ State AFL-CIO) and Fran Ehret (President of Local 194, the union representing toll collectors) testified on some of the concerns of their members. Wowkanech pointed out that unions often were at odds with another Republican governor, Christie Todd Whitman, but the earlier Christie always treated the work force with respect, not the disdain that is exhibited by the current Christie. Ehret gave an emotional history of the one-sidedness of the “negotiations,” where the administration went from cooperation back at the beginning of the year to refusal to negotiate today. She again brought up the concessions being proposed by the union, and was surprised that the privatization RFP was issued when the state’s initial position was to grant the union the right of first refusal. Ehret wondered why there were 300 New Jersey-based job postings for private toll collectors on a commercial web site when the state continues to refuse to negotiate. “I feel like we are living in the Twilight Zone,” she said about the betrayal of the collective bargaining process. Her members, she said, are subject to fumes, robberies, and disgruntled customers, and are not protected by meaningful OSHA regulations. Meanwhile, she pointed out, the Turnpike Authority recently hired two Christie Cronies at six-figure salaries.
Professor Jeffrey Keefe of the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers was even more blunt in his testimony. He pointed out that what is happening with the toll collectors is not collective bargaining, and that management should fire themselves for their actions. He said that privatization initiatives harvested a lot of low hanging fruit in the 70s, but the well began to run dry in the 90s. While public sector employees generally receive more of their compensation through benefits, the average public sector employee is better educated than his or her private sector counterpart. Keefe was sure that in the current economic climate, the state would have no trouble finding people willing to work for $12 per hour collecting tolls. He said he would rather see the state working on job creation (we are 50th out of all the states in this area under the Christie administration) and soberly predicted that if the toll collection tasks are privatized, we will see hundreds of people who will never work again, and some will commit suicide. He urged the administration to engage in collective bargaining and to emphasize process improvement over privatization.
Rae Roeder of CWA Local 1033 and Frank Forst of AFPTE Local 194 were the last to testify. By this time, most of the press and all of the administration flacks had left the meeting room. This did not go unnoticed by Roeder, who accused the governor of not being interested in hearing any opposing viewpoints.
The union contract expires on June 30. The Thruway Authority will vote on privatization next week. How transparent its decision will be remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the toll collectors, just like other public servants, and just like public school students, are expendable pawns in the Christie/Rove/Koch Brothers political shenanigans.