TRENTON, N.J.— Labor leaders rallying for collective-bargaining rights in New Jersey went on the offensive Thursday — with one even comparing Gov. Chris Christie with Adolf Hitler and two Democratic legislative leaders to his generals, then apologizing amid widespread criticism.
The stinging criticism came one day after the three agreed on a deal to sharply restrict state employee bargaining rights and increase healthcare and pension costs.
"Welcome to Nazi Germany," Christopher Shelton, international vice president of the Communication Workers of America's District 1, told the large crowd gathered on the Statehouse lawn. "It's going to take World War III to get rid of Adolf Christie."
Hours after criticism over the remarks starting coming from all directions, Shelton acknowledged that his comments were inappropriate, and he apologized to "the governor and to anyone else I may have offended."
Carrying signs that read "negotiate, don't legislate," an estimated 3,500 people took to the Statehouse lawn Thursday to protest the deal, which was reached late Wednesday night with mostly support from Republicans and a few Democrats, who have long enjoyed union backing.
"I think (Christie) is doing the same thing that Scott Walker is doing in Wisconsin," Lee Saunders, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME, told The Associated Press. "It's unacceptable to preclude us from the right to collectively bargain for our rights."
The rally was planned before Christie, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver agreed to put forward a bill to require the state's 500,000 government employees to pay a portion of their health care premiums based on income and to contribute more toward their pensions.
"I view this as union busting," said Jersey City police officer Mark Razzoli, who accused lawmakers of trying to turn the public against public workers when he said lawmakers deserved blame for raiding the pension system in flush years.
"Not that long ago, we were heroes, you know," Razzoli said. "I was at ground zero, as many other people were. It is disgraceful what is going on here."
Several Democratic lawmakers told the rally they opposed the deal; that group included Senator Ray Lesniak and Assemblymen Daniel Benson, Patrick Diegnan, Wayne DeAngelo, Reed Gusciora, and Vincent Prieto.
"Today is the difference between sheep and lions," Gusciora, D-Princeton, said. "There's a lot of sheep inside while the lions are out here protecting workers' rights."
DeAngelo told the crowd: "I'm not inside because my mind is already made up."
Inside the Statehouse, a Senate budget committee was considering the bill sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, an official with the ironworkers union.
As Sweeney spoke, union members at the rally chanted "Sweeney is a rat" with some pointing to a 10-foot inflatable rat holding a sign saying: "Pension Betrayal."
Workers also brought along a coffin with a sign proclaiming: "The death of collective bargaining."
The Senate panel passed the measure 9-4, with four Democrats supporting it, but not before 25 union members were taken out of the hearing room and arrested for disorderly conduct because they were chanting, "Kill the bill."
The Assembly and full Senate are to consider the bill next week in what is expected to be a contentious vote, given that all 120 legislators are up for re-election in November — a fact that union leaders noted Thursday with this warning: "We'll remember in November."
Sweeney seemed unfazed, saying, "I'm not going to be here to be told what to do."
Christie said public employees in New Jersey eventually will thank him and the leaders of the Democratic-majority for saving their pensions.
"New Jersey is setting a model for dealing with these problems in an honest, forthright and bipartisan way," the governor said.
Lou Venezia, a 33-year-old firefighter in Bloomfield, wasn't in a thanking mood when he compared lawmakers to criminals.
"I'm down here protesting all the pimps, thieves, prostitutes and racketeers," Venezia said, "and I'm not at Trenton State Prison, I'm at the Statehouse."
Amid the unfiltered criticism, there was a call for temperance.
Lesniak, D-Elizabeth, who was opposed by the NJEA in a tough primary election last week, urged Democrats to distance themselves from inflammatory genocide remarks.
"We cannot support equating Chris Christie and Steve Sweeney and Sheila Oliver with Nazis," Lesniak said. "We support your rights totally, but we cannot be associated with those comments."
More rallies are planned for next week.
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