N.J. Teachers Rush Into Retirement
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made a splash at the opening news conference of last weekend's National Governors Association meeting in Boston, when he forcefully criticized state employee unions and said obligations for worker pay raises and health care benefits are becoming too costly for cash-strapped state governments.
"The public-sector unions need to become part of the shared sacrifice and they ' re refusing to," Christie said, according to an account in The Washington Post . The paper noted that the first-term Republican used the NGA meeting to take a New Jersey issue — the ongoing battle between his administration and state unions, particularly teachers, over pay and benefits — to the national stage.
Christie has had a successful first few months in office, so his words carry plenty of authority. He was able to push a deeply controversial, all-cuts budget through a majority Democratic Legislature with relative ease, and just yesterday, lawmakers finalized a 2-percent annual property cap that saw the governor get much of what he wanted on one of the state's most vexing problems.
Now, there appears to be evidence that public workers are deeply concerned that the governor will do more to act on his perceived threats toward labor unions and employee benefits.
According to The Asbury Park Press , New Jersey teachers are retiring at a much faster clip this year than they have in the recent past. Already this month, nearly 5,500 have announced that they intend to retire, compared with 2,203 last July, 2,731 in 2008 and 3,168 in 2007. "If the intentions to retire maintain the traditional pattern from August through December," the paper reported, "the final figure will likely be double the 3,671 in 2009."
Why so many retirements? According to state teachers' unions, a lot of it can be traced to Christie's plans to further rein in state spending by reducing public benefits. "About half (of the retirements) you would expect," Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, told the The Press . "What we're also hearing is people are fed up with the political climate, and the uncertainty of what they're getting back into. There are grumblings about (Christie) going after existing pensions."
Christie has confirmed the fears. In a radio interview on Monday (July 12), he said he is serious about scaling back pensions and health benefits for current employees, rather than only for future hires, nj.com reported . "I have nothing against people who work in the public sector," the governor told WABC-AM. "They work hard, they're fine folks, and they're doing a good job, in the main, for the people of our state. But there should be no sector of our society that is shielded from this recession at the expense of all the rest of our society."
Earlier this year, the NJEA and Christie became entangled in a nasty war of words over the governor's budget, with Christie even taking the unusual step of getting involved in local school elections, urging voters around the state to reject local school budgets unless teachers accepted pay freezes. A record 58 percent of the school budgets were voted down at Christie's urging, and relations between teachers and the governor have been frosty — to put it mildly — ever since.