By Kevin Brown, Sara Cullinane, and Dena Mottola Jaborska
Tuesday’s election results represent a win for working class New Jerseyans – and the legislators that support them. Despite fears of a “red wave,” Democrats in the New Jersey state legislature in fact expanded their reach to a near veto-proof majority in both the Assembly and Senate. Workers – in particular workers of color – are to thank for this major victory.
Despite threats from the NJ Business and Industry Association to unseat legislators who supported working families’ issues, in competitive races, the candidates that won – across party lines – by and large supported a pro-worker agenda. In some of the most competitive races, including LD-11, LD-16, LD-36 and LD-38, Democrats who championed the working class — from protecting janitors’ jobs to supporting temp workers, to making a full pension payment – triumphed. Republican Senator Vince Polistina was the only member of his party in the Senate to support the Temp Workers’ Bill of Rights – and along with Republicans Claire Swift and Don Guardian, voted in favor of Gov. Murphy’s 2023 and 2024 budgets, which provided for full pension payments. All three Republicans won re-election in a hotly contested race.
Workers and their families came out to vote because of these candidates’ track records, and because of labor unions’ and worker organizations’ powerful turn out apparatus. Over the past session, the New Jersey state legislature has expanded workers’ rights and protections in the face of significant opposition from the business lobby. These wins have helped protect working people, especially workers of color and immigrant workers. Even as the New Jersey Business and Industry Association spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat key pro-worker priorities, New Jersey legislature extended unemployment benefits to striking workers at a moment when strikes are at an all time high; a first in the nation Temporary Workers’ Bill of Rights that takes on a long exploitative temp industry in New Jersey’s vast warehouse and light manufacturing sector; and laws that protect nursing home and building service workers from sudden job loss. In addition, the minimum wage in New Jersey continues to increase and will hit over $15 in January. The FY2024 budget includes another full payment on the pension. From the public sector to low wage workers, this legislature has taken significant steps to improve the lives of working class people in New Jersey.
These kitchen table legislative victories for workers helped to build electoral power at the ballot box by giving working class people of color a reason to come to the polls. Labor unions and workers’ groups participated significantly in the elections and their donations and ground game helped make the difference in multiple close races. Communications of America District 1 public sector members completed more than 1,000 shifts on doors in key districts, knocking on over 20,000 doors in key districts and vote by mail chase for thousands of members. The New Jersey Education Association’s Garden State Forward PAC donated more than $1 million for Democratic candida tes. SEIU 32BJ knocked on 6,000 doors this Fall, primarily in tight races, and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in resources to these campaigns, along with the SEIU State Council, including SEIU 1199 Healthcare Workers East, Laundry, Distribution, and Food Service (LDFS) Joint Board, Workers United SEIU, who also engaged voters. New Jersey Citizen Action hosted paid leave Get Out the Vote drives that engaged thousands of working parents on paid family leave in critical swing districts. Make the Road Action, whose members are working class immigrants and Latinx families, knocked on 5,500 doors in key towns with large, working class Latinx populations: Bergenfield and Lodi in LD38 and Freehold Boro in LD11 for example, to motivate voters in these most competitive races. The Laborers, Hotel and Trades Council and Carpenters’ unions also made substantial contributions to key Democrat candidates. Candidates won because labor and workers’ organizations turned up and turned out.
The takeaway is clear. First, working class people of color are a significant voting bloc in New Jersey, and candidates must address their issues and concerns. Too often, legislators focus efforts on middle class tax relief and shy away from the types of workplace and social justice issues that impact working class families of color. But who powered much of the favorable returns for Democrats last Tuesday? The legislature should not shy away from advancing kitchen table issues for these voters and their families. As legislators pursue a lame duck agenda, they should lift up issues important to working class voters of color – the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which will provide key workplace protections to a largely female, Black and Latinx workforce; reigning in the rising cost of health care through hospital pricing transparency; and continuing to tax wealthy corporations through the Corporate Business Surtax to fund vital programs. Kitchen table issues for working class families of color in New Jersey drive voters to the polls. And they make our state strong.
Kevin Brown is the Executive Vice President and NJ State Director SEIU 32BJ; Sara Cullinane is the NJ State Director, Make the Road Action; and Dena Mottola Jaborska is the Executive Director, New Jersey Citizen Action.