Unions Rally for ‘Deal’ on State Health Benefits

TRENTON – Rene Demuynck is quite the optimist.

As hundreds of public union workers clad in identifying shirts of different colors demonstrated outside the Statehouse today, Demuynck, a shop steward of CWA Local 1037, said he was confident the sustained and often noisy display would do some good.

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

He praised Phil Murphy as being a great friend of the working man, adding, “I hope he’s in there making a deal.”

If Murphy was indeed “making a deal,” we’re not going to know 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. An initial proposal calls for a rather staggering increase of from 20 to 24 percent.

That, said those congregating 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 noon rally that included fiery speeches and chants accompanied by drum playing.

“All Day, All Night, Health Care is a Human Right,” was one chant.

Another was, “You Say Stronger, You Say Fairer, We Won’t Take It Anymore.”

This was a take-off on Murphy’s signature line of making New Jersey “stronger and fairer.”

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

Even now – some five years later – he likes taking pot shots at the anti-union mindset of his predecessor, Chris Christie.

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

A reason for the pending increase revolves around COVID.

A fact sheet issued by the Treasury Department, which oversees health benefits, said higher contributions are needed because more employees tapped health care services during the pandemic. Moreover, non-emergency procedures that were postponed during the pandemic are now being done.

Even if all that is correct, speakers pointed out that a 20 percent contribution increase would be extraordinarily high. So, why not try negotiating a lower increase? And besides, in many cases it was public employees who remained on the job during the height of the pandemic.

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

Patrick Colligan, the president of the New Jersey State PBA, said it’s important to speak out, but he wasn’t all that confident the rally would do any good.

Clearly, not everyone is an optimist.

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