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Friends in high places: Murphy administration seen as union-friendly

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Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his Fiscal year 2019 Budget Address in Trenton.
Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his Fiscal year 2019 Budget Address in Trenton. - ()

Gov. Phil Murphy often voiced support for organized labor during his 2017 election campaign, though it remains to be seen how extensively his leanings translate into policy.

But it’s worth noting that Murphy last month struck an agreement with the Communications Workers of America AFL-CIO that had eluded his predecessor. The pact gives 35,000 state government workers a 2 percent pay hike retroactive to Aug. 15 and another 2 percent rise beginning the first pay period in this July.

Also in May, Murphy signed the Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act into law, aimed at bolstering public worker unions in case the U.S. Supreme Court rules against them in the hotly debated Janus v. AFSCME case. A decision is expected soon in the matter, which could let non-union public workers opt out of paying dues or similar fees, even though they theoretically benefit from the union’s representation.

“In contrast to his predecessor, Gov. Murphy will certainly pursue policies and decisions that unions define as ‘worker friendly,’ said Susan Schurman, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

“That does not mean that he’ll have no conflicts with labor, especially the unions that represent state of New Jersey employees, where the governor represents the employer,” Schurman said. “Overall, he will no doubt try to strike a balance on matters of collective bargaining with state of New Jersey employees and will seek a positive relationship with both New Jersey employers and unions. But he’s a liberal and clearly shares many of the same values as unions.”

So after eight years chafing under former Gov. Chris Christie, state workers are breathing a sigh of relief. So will Murphy’s labor-friendly stand spill over to the private sector?

“The governor, in concert with the Legislature, has tremendous power to enact policies that unions advocate, ranging from workplace safety and health issues to paid family leave, to job training for dislocated workers,” Schurman noted. “These are matters that affect both private and public sector employees and their unions.

Susan Schurman, professor of labor studies and employment relations, Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.
Susan Schurman, professor of labor studies and employment relations, Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. - ()

That was evident when Murphy recently signed a bill ostensibly aimed guaranteeing equal pay for men and women doing similar jobs, though businesses contend there can be important, if subtle, job responsibilities behind some pay differences for similar-sounding positions.

The governor further opened himself up to certain critics with a plan to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, more than double the current federal minimum wage. Some businesses have warned that higher wages will drive them to cut back on worker hours and further embrace automation.

Schurman isn’t so sure that will happen.

“This can be true if unions only raise wages for a small percentage of workers in a particular labor market thereby making unionized employers pay a higher wage than non-union employers,” she said. “This is why unions try to organize a sufficient number of workers in the same labor market so that employers are not competing on wages.”

On this issue, at least, some business organizations aren’t about to lock horns with Murphy.

“We support an increased minimum wage, as long as its implemented over a reasonable period of time so businesses can absorb it, and if there are some exemptions like summer workers in the tourist industry and farm workers,” New Jersey Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas Bracken said. “Gov. Murphy is still new and he’s finding his way. But he’s talked about a ‘fairer and stronger economy’ and he’s obviously addressed the ‘fair’ part. Now we’d like to see him take some steps to make New Jersey’s economy stronger, too.”

A nuanced view

A union leader is also taking a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to Murphy.

“Gov. Murphy has negotiated with the public workers union, he’s supported efforts to increase Newark airport workers’ wages, and he’s taken steps to try to blunt the impact of a possible negative Janus decision by the Supreme Court,” said Greg Lalevee, business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 and chairman of Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative. “But he’s also taken some shots against the PennEast pipeline, an infrastructure project that could create a lot of jobs.”

Lalevee also said Christie wasn’t as one-dimensional while in office as some union activists have painted him. “Christie was not an enemy of labor,” he said. “Some things he did were good for construction and infrastructure.”

Lalevee said he can see “businesses’ point of view” when it comes to a minimum wage hike.

But, he added: “We keep hearing about the skills gap and a shortage of skilled workers, and this could indicate that the pay in some industries is not enough to attract sufficient people. Our own members work a lot of overtime, which indicates there aren’t enough workers coming into this field.”

Kevin Brown, the New Jersey state director of service workers union 32BJ SEIU, said Murphy is a welcome change.

“We were extremely disappointed under Christie,” Brown said. “Gov. Murphy has already accomplished some positive things and we think he’ll continue to come through.”

Brown’s not worried about the prospect of hiring cutbacks if the minimum wage jumps.

“I heard that all the time when the state’s minimum rose to $8.25 [in 2014], but the sky didn’t fall,” he said. “That argument is a paper tiger. Companies still need to do business here.”

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