SULLIVAN: How New Jersey Scrambled to Protect Government Unions Such as the NJEA before Janus

New Jersey Doesn’t Fool Around When It Comes to Catering to Public-Sector Unions

In the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law new protections for the New Jersey Education Association and other public-sector unions. In the name of “labor stability,” the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act gives the government unions invasive powers to keep the members they have and recruit new ones.

The law gives unions the muscle to collect private information on workers, limit members’ ability to exit the union, and sign up previously excluded part-time workers.

The Supreme Court decision released Wednesday means that no public employee anywhere in the country can be forced to pay even partial dues or fees to a union. The 5-4 decision, hailed by opponents of “fair share” or “agency” fees as a victory for the First Amendment, overturns a ruling from 1977.

In his decision, Justice Samuel Alito added a particularly brutal blow to public-sector unions by instructing that nonmembers no longer have to opt-out of paying dues, instead they must agree to pay them. It’s still unclear how this move will impact the imposition of the new law in New Jersey.

New Jersey doesn’t fool around when it comes to catering to public-sector unions, so it’s not a big surprise that Trenton worked to nullify the effect of any court decision against them.

NJEA President Marie Blistan called Janus an “anti-worker, anti-middle class” ruling. “The court’s attempt today to stifle labor’s collective voice will fail, because we refuse to be silenced.”

NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said his office will “use our legal authorities to continue vigorous enforcement of state laws that protect workers’ rights to organize and to engage in collective bargaining.”

New Jersey doesn’t fool around when it comes to catering to public-sector unions, so it’s not a big surprise that Trenton worked to nullify the effect of any court decision against them. The biggest union by far in terms of membership and clout is the NJEA, the local affiliate of the National Education Association. With more than 200,000 active and retired members, it’s powerful enough to close all public schools across the state – even those such as Newark that are not represented by the NJEA – for two days in early November so union members can convene in Atlantic City. Last year’s theme was social justice and a main speaker was the daughter of Malcolm X. Even New York and California teachers’ unions don’t have the power to shutter schools for a convention.

NJEA members pay as much as $866 in annual dues. The American Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, represents thousands more in colleges and school districts, including Newark, around the state.

The public-sector unions affected by Janus are also among the top donors to the campaigns of Assembly and Senate Democrats and to Gov. Murphy, who ran last year on a platform of higher taxes. The investment paid off for the unions. The NJEA called the new law a “real win for working people.”

Here is some of what the “democracy enhancement” Act does for unions:

  • Severely restricts the time period when workers are allowed to opt out of a union. They can drop their membership but only during a limited period each year – just the first 10 days after their hiring-anniversary date. No word yet on how this can be enforced when Justice Alito specified that employees must opt-in rather than opt-out.
  • Mandates that in addition to providing work details, government personnel departments have 10 days to hand over to the union the home address, personal email address and the home and cell phone numbers of each new employee. Beginning Jan. 1, they must provide that personal information on all employees every 120 days.
  • Makes it difficult for taxpayer and other outside groups to encourage workers to drop their membership by now prohibiting the disclosure of employee information through public-records requests. So the unions will have the right to information on every taxpayer-paid worker in the state, but the public no longer will.
  • Guarantees that union officials can spend at least 30 minutes of paid time with each new hire. There’s no limit on how long the meetings can last, so anyone thinking about not joining may be in for a long session.
  • Makes public employers reimburse the unions for any money lost if government departments try to influence employees to quit or not join the union.

New Jersey is at the bottom of the national rankings in fiscal health. Wave after wave of legislators and governors overspent on union members’ pay and benefits–and then kicked up taxes to cover the holes. As of December the unfunded pension liability stood at $90 billion, up $10 billion in just three years. To balance the budget that takes effect July 1, Gov. Murphy is keen to impose taxes on “millionaires,” Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, and marijuana that would be legalized, as well as hike the sales tax back up to 7%. For its part, the legislature is proposing an increase in the top corporate tax rate to 13%, the highest in the country.

Of course, it’s not just Trenton politicians who love higher taxes. A poll last month by Monmouth University found that property taxes – the highest in the nation – imposed by myriad towns, counties and school districts are the number one problem cited by New Jerseyans. Pollster Patrick Murray said the results show that “it’s no surprise that more and more New Jerseyans are choosing to vote with their feet by simply moving out of the state.” That includes tens of thousands of retired government workers who collect their generous pensions while residing in states with less-onerous taxes.

Maureen Sullivan

Maureen Sullivan is a former Hoboken, N.J., school board member who has written for Forbes, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
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