TRENTON – Government employers appear, at least for the time being, to have fought off legislation sought by public worker unions that would make more topics eligible for collective bargaining.

The bill was endorsed by Senate and Assembly committees and got listed for floor votes last Thursday, only to not get called. The Assembly intends to not return to action until November, which is common once the budget is finalized in legislative election years, so the bill might be dormant for five months.

It was to have been the Legislature’s second round of union safeguards adopted after the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision on June 27, 2018 affecting union dues.

Local government groups say the bill would tip the balance in collective bargaining in favor of unions by allowing negotiations on a range of topics that aren’t now subject to them. John Donnadio, executive director of the New Jersey Association of Counties, said managerial prerogative would vanish.

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“We are not negotiating with private-sector profits. We’re negotiating with other people’s money,” Donnadio said. “Negotiating on behalf of the property taxpayer dollars.”

Michael Cerra, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said the proposal could drive up costs for local governments by leading to arbitration and, ultimately, litigation. He said lawmakers should move cautiously and study the likely impacts.

“We really don’t see an emergency or an urgency or a time-sensitive nature to this,” Cerra said.

Fran Ehret, the New Jersey area director for the Communications Workers of America, points to last year’s agreement with Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration as proof of why the change is needed. Unions agreed to give up raises in exchange for a no-layoffs pledge – but it’s a handshake agreement the state could break if it wanted because layoffs aren’t officially a topic subject to negotiations.

“Luckily, we have an important level of trust with Gov. Murphy and his administration,” Ehret said. “We certainly could never have agreed to such a deal with the Christie administration.”

Labor unions agreed to a series of amendments to the bill in an effort to address those types of concerns. Christian Estevez, executive vice president of CWA Local 1037, said talks about the expanded scope of topics of negotiations would be permissive, not mandatory.

“If there’s a demand or a proposal put across the table that the other side doesn’t agree with, they always have the right to say no and this bill doesn’t change that,” Estevez said.

If the stalled bill were to become law:

  • Public employers would be prohibited from unilaterally imposing or changing any terms and conditions of employment from an expired or expiring collective negotiations agreement without the specific written agreement of the union.
  • A public employee union could charge an employee who does not pay dues to the union for the cost of representing the employee in arbitration proceedings.
  • The union could decline to represent an employee who does not pay union dues in arbitration unless the employee agrees to pay for the cost of representation.
  • Only the parties to a collective-negotiations agreement could invoke the arbitration procedures of the agreement and be parties to the arbitration.
  • Electronic signatures of employees could be used for authorization cards and petitions to conduct union representation elections.

Beyond state and local workers, the proposal would also apply to state colleges.

Rutgers University associate general counsel Tim Cedrone said such a bill would fiscally degrade the university, opening a door to negotiations about tenure, promotions, hiring, layoffs, tuition rates and course scheduling.

“It could potentially paralyze labor relations, compromise universities’ missions and ultimately that would have significant impact on student affordability in the state,” Cedrone said.

Faculty union leaders say the bill would be a historic step forward, after a few tough years in the wake of the Janus decision. If more topics can be discussed, they say, it allows for collaboration and creativity.

“I just think this is leveling the playing field. It doesn’t require management to say yes to anything. It requires them to bargain in good faith over issues,” said Patrick Nowlan, executive director of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT.

“I don’t quite understand why this bill is controversial when it’s really just an effort to bring our public sector unions here in line – sometimes with one another and other times in line with other states and the private sector,” said Diomedes Tsitouras, executive director of AAUP-BHSNJ.

Questions to ask to see if someone’s REALLY from New Jersey