Drivers honked their horns as they passed public workers chanting, “We pay taxes too” and “We are not the problem."
More than 170 public workers including teachers, township employees, Teamsters, and bus drivers gathered for a rally at Bicentennial Park in Forked River as a part of the “We Are One” national demonstration.
The union members called for the government to pay their "fair share" and start participating in collective bargaining.
Union leaders began their movement in Lacey because township employees were furloughed 22 days last year in six months, causing a 20 percent reduction in salary, said Ellen Vidal, executive president of Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 1088.
“It’s issue based. It’s not necessarily Democrat or Republican. It’s all about the issues. It’s about collective bargaining. It’s about what we’ve done throughout the years that they’re trying to take away,” said Vidal.
This particular demonstration was led by CWA Local 1088 but people as far as Perth Amboy and Atlantic County attended, Vidal said.
“They need to sit down and bargain. That’s the basis for collective bargaining. They have to stop back-door politics. They have to be forthcoming. Everybody has to come together with this and negotiate. That’s what unions have always done,” Vidal said.
Vidal, a Lacey resident for more than 40 years, compared the state of New Jersey to that of California in which Gov. Jerry Brown is negotiating with the unions while the governors in eight other states are shutting down, she said.
“It’s our taxpayers that are paying for the bonuses. It’s our tax dollars paying the bailouts. It’s our union members that are losing their homes and losing their jobs. We’re paying everything and doing more with less so it’s time the politicians do the same,” Vidal said.
In December, Vidal noted, Lacey employees agreed to a zero percent salary increase for three years in addition to paying toward their health benefits but before receiving the contract, they were handed furlough notices again.
“These are $20,000 and $30,000 salaries. They have the same bills to pay. You take 20 percent away, and that’s a deep cut. A lot of them are single parent households trying to do what they can and working second jobs,” Vidal said.
The township is looking to begin furlough days this month, Vidal said.
“They’re digging further into our pockets,” Vidal said.
Democrat Gary Vaccaro, who is running for the Lacey Township Committee, attended the rally to listen to the public workers, he said.
“I’m here to support the public workers of Lacey Township. I want to listen to their issues and concerns,” Vaccaro said. “I’m hoping to get us to work together as a community and trying to get the public workers and the non-public workers to try and understand each other’s side and maybe we’ll come to a solution that is a benefit to everybody.”
There needs to be better communication between the government and public employees, Vaccaro said.
He added that a lot of what is being said about public employees is untrue.
“Public workers really do work hard. Nobody is getting rich and we’re not feeding off of the taxpayers,” said Vaccaro, who is regulatory compliance and health and safety supervisor of the Brick Township Municipal Utilities Authority.
“[Public workers] want to support their family just like everybody else does. There’s things that need to be compromised and changed but we should not be villainizing them and making them the cause of all the problems,” Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro said that contributing 30 percent to health benefits would be too much for public workers who are making 30 to 50k a year.
“We have to reach a compromise. As far as specifically what we could do here, I need to look at that,” Vaccaro said.
Frank Discenza of Lacey Township, a retired teacher who worked in New York City for 32 years, said public employees have already made sacrifices.
“I just think the unions across the country, they were asked to give more for their pension and health care, they understand the economy, and they did so openly and willingly,” Discenza said.
Unions were created to keep workers from abuse, Discenza said. He added that the country should have more responsible unions.
“If you were a corporation and I went to you and I said, “Mrs. Corporation, I really have a problem with workers safety,” I would get fired. But if I come to you with 500 or however many voices, then maybe somebody will listen to us,” Discenza said.
Ocean County teachers were also protesting the reforms initiated by Gov. Chris Christie.
Christie is being irresponsible with how he is representing teachers, Lacey resident said Lynn Lapsley, a Southern Regional teacher.
“I don’t feel that a responsible governor should pit the people against their neighbors and people who go to work everyday to do a good job for their kids in the community,” Lapsley said.
“We’re not happy with the governor and how he’s cheating the hard working class,” Manahawkin resident Eileen Cosentino said.
Mayor Gary Quinn of Lacey Township did not immediately return calls for comment.
The “We Are One” demonstrations, started by the CWA, are occurring internationally including in Afghanistan, Paris, and Mongolia, Vidal said. Over 450 rallies took place across the country on April 4.