January 2, 2017 – New Jersey
By Katherine Landergan
When then-candidate Phil Murphy accepted yet another endorsement from organized labor in October, he condemned the current governor for often suggesting that unions are the problem — and never part of the solution.
"We're going to change the tone in Trenton and have an administration that holds our hard-working union men and women in the greatest possible respect," Murphy, a Democrat, promised members of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters that day.
Murphy, now the governor-elect, ran a progressive campaign against Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, advocating for union rights and aligning many of his platform proposals with some of the state's most powerful labor groups. Along the way, he scooped up endorsements from more than 50 labor organizations and collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from them.
As Murphy prepares to take the reins from Republican Gov. Chris Christie in two weeks, top union officials are hoping the candidate they supported in a big way will come through for them, even though they acknowledge that getting everything they want won't be easy.
In a series of interviews with POLITICO, several of New Jersey's top union leaders said they were relieved that Christie — with whom some had a contentious relationship — was leaving office. The Murphy administration, they said, offers an opportunity to accomplish things that weren't possible over the past eight years, such as raising the state's minimum wage to $15 or fully funding the school aid formula.
For some labor leaders, the most immediate benefit of having Murphy in the governor's office will be a likely shift in tone.
"We will not be under attack 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey state director for the Communications Workers of America, which represents tens of thousands of state workers, among others. "[Christie] used every single opportunity to not only disparage the work that we do but to attempt to undermine the standard of living of members."
John Ballantyne, executive secretary-treasurer of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, was equally frank when discussing his union's relationship with Christie and the one he's hoping for under Murphy.
"It's night and day," said Ballantyne, whose union represents thousands of craftsmen and women in the construction industry. "I can pick up the phone and have a conversation with Ambassador Murphy. We do not have that ability right now with Gov. Christie."
Murphy has said he supports many of the issues the unions are fighting for. He backs a gradual increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour, something both the CWA and 32BJ SEIU, which represents 12,000 property service employees in New Jersey, such as office cleaners, school maintenance workers and security officers, are demanding. Those unions are also seeking earned sick leave for workers in New Jersey, another Murphy-backed proposal.
In addition, the governor-elect has said he will fully fund the state's school aid formula and increase contributions to the state's pension systems, two major issues for the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.
Raising the minimum wage and providing earned sick leave should be achievable, said Seton Hall University political scientist Matthew Hale. But given the state's fiscal woes — including a dozen credit downgrades under Christie and a drastically underfunded pension system — other, costlier initiatives might be out of reach.
"New Jersey is in trouble budget-wise," Hale said. "There's not a lot of wiggle room in what [Murphy] can give. I think the biggest thing he is going to give is change in tone, that unions are not going to be the enemy anymore."
While Murphy is seen as a friend of labor unions, Christie feuded publicly with many of them during his eight years in office, none more prominently than the NJEA. He has routinely gone after the union's leaders, criticizing their salaries and referring to the union's headquarters in Trenton as "the palace across the street from the Statehouse."
At a press conference last month, Christie disputed the notion he has had poor relationships with public-sector unions. He noted that he has negotiated successful contracts, agreeing to raises and benefits while practicing fiscal responsibility.
"Even Hetty [Rosenstein], who is certainly not the president of my fan club, we've been able to get things done with her," Christie said.
The clear exception, he said, has been the NJEA, and he again blasted its leadership for not respecting public officials. The union tried and failed to oust state Senate President Steve Sweeney this year in what appears to have become the most expensive state legislative race in U.S. history.
"I don't think you can have a relationship with people who don't respect people in public office," Christie said. "If they want to treat the next governor with respect, I'm sure that he will treat them with respect back. They never treated me with respect, not once."
For the NJEA, the animosity is mutual. Union President Marie Blistan said having Murphy as governor will present a "brighter opportunity" for the state's public schools.
"We have somebody coming into the governor's seat who has openly said that he respects and admires the work that public educators do in our public schools and that he wants to support the public education of students," she said.
A spokesman for Murphy did not respond to a request for comment.
Throughout the campaign, Murphy spent a significant amount of time blasting the Christie administration for its attack on union protections and regularly posted photos online of his appearances before union workers. "NJ was built with union hands & we'll rebuild it with union hands," Murphy tweeted on Election Day as he stood with members of the building trades in South Jersey.
For their part, unions and union PACs donated about $450,000 to Murphy, according to filings from the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission. Those figures do not include donations in October and November, meaning the final total will likely be higher. Separately, Committee to Build the Economy, a super PAC aimed at helping elect Murphy that was largely funded by unions, raised $5.8 million.
Murphy is no stranger to labor relations. He has a deep business background, having worked for years as an executive at Goldman Sachs, and served as U.S. ambassador to Germany, where unions dominate the labor force.
Rosenstein, the CWA leader, said Murphy is someone who believes in collective bargaining in a "fundamental way" and that anyone who believes he is in the pocket of the public workers' unions has it "backwards."
"Those people don't know him," she said. "He was in Germany as an ambassador, a country where everyone is in a union, and there is always collective bargaining, and there is respect for collective bargaining as a way to move the economy."
Business leaders say they aren't afraid they'll lose influence in the new administration. While Christie was certainly a "pro-business" governor, Murphy, thus far, has indicated their voices will be heard as well, they say.
"If we have a seat at the table, that's more than we've had with the current governor," said Tom Bracken, president and CEO of the state Chamber of Commerce. "We didn't have a seat at the table [with Christie]. As you know, most of his decisions were done behind closed doors with a small group of people."
Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said she thinks there is plenty on which her group and labor unions can agree.
"We've had good public discourse with the unions around job creation and workforce development, and we're looking forward to focusing on those areas of common ground," she said.
While union leaders are confident they'll have a strong ally in the governor's office, they admit victories will not be easy to come by.