The governor and other elected officials addressed the annual meeting of the Southern NJ AFL-CIO Central Labor Council at the Scottish Rite ballroom Friday morning.
By Matt Skoufalos | September 1, 2023
On the eve of Labor Day weekend, Governor Phil Murphy joined other elected officials and union leaders in Collingswood to speak about preserving New Jersey’s legacy as “the cradle of organized labor.”
In remarks to the Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, Murphy spoke about “own[ing] that moment in time… when America’s looking up at organized labor and unions.
As the fall election season approaches, the governor urged South Jersey labor leaders to “make hay while the sun shines,” and pledged to make New Jersey “the quintessential organized labor state in America, period, full stop.”
Among his administration’s accomplishments on that front, Murphy cited three consecutive years of full pension payments to state public-sector employees, a willingness to enforce wage theft and employee misclassification regulations, and rules that protect New Jersey cannabis workers’ rights to unionize.
“Whether it’s protection, having the backs of workers, creating opportunity, we are and always will be the quintessential American union state,” he said. “You have my word for that.”
Former New Jersey State Senator Steve Sweeney spoke about a handful of national labor issues, including the relaxation of child labor laws and violations of the same.
According to a June 2023 report from the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, bills that would roll back protections for youth workers have been introduced in 10 states, even as “serious child labor violations are on the rise in hazardous meatpacking and manufacturing jobs.”
“We have legislators in the state of New Jersey who would do that right now,” Sweeney said. “They’ve put bills in for right to work.
Referencing Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services, which, Reuters reported in February, was fined $1.5 million for employing more than 100 teens in sanitization of meat-packing factories in Nebraska and Kansas, Sweeney described “kids 13 to 15, cleaning meat plants with industrial chemicals, going to school with burns all over their body, half-asleep from working at night.”
By comparison, he said, New Jersey offers paid family leave, earned sick leave, and an inflation-indexed minimum wage.
“This is America,” he said. “We don’t go backwards, we go forward.”
U.S. Representative Donald Norcross (D, NJ-01), who frequently reminds his constituents that he’s “the only union electrician in Congress,” described the changing public perception of organized labor in the United States.
A recent Gallup report noted that 67 percent of Americans support labor unions, and one-third believe unions will be stronger in the future than they are today, demonstrating “an unprecedented uptick” in public perception of their strength since sampling public perception in 2018.
“When Steve [Sweeney] and I were young men in the trenches, working with the tools, we were up there with used car salesman,” Norcross said. “The American public approves of labor. They’re waking up and saying, ‘Remember during the pandemic, we kept things running.’”
The Congressman also alluded to national-scale collective bargaining victories, like the historic, five-year contract inked between UPS and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in late August, while keeping an eye on “a big one coming up with UAW (the International Union of United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America) and the auto makers.”
New Jersey AFL-CIO President Charlie Wowkanech described several ongoing labor actions across the state, including the 30-day strike initiated by UAW Local 2326 workers at WestRock, LLC, in Dayton, and stalled contract talks between nurses and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick.
“WestRock makes cardboard boxes for Amazon,” Wowkanech said.
“They will not come to the table to negotiate. They have $4 billion in profits, and they want to take away 125 union members’ healthcare plan.
“We have 1,700 nurses on strike with Robert Wood Johnson New Brunswick,” he continued. “They have not been to the table in over three weeks; the hospital has no intention of coming to the table. They’ve hired 800 strikebreakers.”
Wowkanech cited labor-friendly laws in New Jersey as enabling striking workers to collect unemployment “from Day One” when their employer brings in other paid workers.
“Our younger [union]members are not afraid to say they’re not taking this,” he said.
“Workers are starting to realize in this country that the best way to earn a living is to be in a union, to have a contract, to have healthcare, to have a pension.”
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