By Erin Delmore
“Clearly, this was a blow to collective bargaining rights,” said Montclair State University Professor of Political Science and Law Brigid Harrison.
Back in 2009, at the height of the recession, a couple of cash-strapped New Jersey towns forced public employees to take a leave of absence without pay — and without negotiation. Their unions took to the courts, all the way up to the state Supreme Court. This week, the justices ruled in favor of the municipalities.
“Municipalities were going through loss of property values, tax appeals were going on, property tax appeals were going on, revenue streams were drying up at the municipal level, caps were in place, budget caps, and costs were very high. So with all that pressure going on, all at the same time, it was an extreme, extraordinary measure to do these furloughs, these temporary furloughs,” said New Jersey State League of Municipalities Executive Director Michael Darcy.
The court backed decisions made by local government officials in Belmar and Mount Laurel to force employees on unpaid leave — essentially, temporary layoffs — and in Keyport, where two full-time employees dropped down to part-time. Union representatives say those are pay cuts and should have been determined through collective bargaining.
“If we can negotiate a contract, and then after that, the town can say, ‘Well we gave you this raise, but now you’re not coming to work on Friday anymore because, eh, it’s financially exigent,’ then there’s really no point in bargaining a contract. So we think that a decision this bad and made this callously very much undermines the ability of unions to negotiate and undermines contract law in the state of New Jersey,” said Communications Workers of America Legislative and Political Director Seth Hahn.
The State League of Municipalities, a “friend of the court” in the Keyport case, say rules were followed.
“It was done through specific regulations that were set up at that time, by the way those regulations have expired, and the municipalities operated within the collective bargaining system, within the regulations set in place by the civil service system. So I believe that the unions shouldn’t be upset about this and shouldn’t be overly concerned,” Darcy said.
Legal analysts say this case, taken with last month’s state Supreme Court decision on public employee pension funding, shows the impact Gov. Chris Christie has had on the Supreme Court.
“What we’re seeing is the three appointments that he’s made to the court are really determining policy in the state, and that’s exactly what he wanted in terms of environmental law, in terms of housing law, in terms of education, and I think that this is only the beginning in terms of that impact. We’ll be seeing that in New Jersey for a decade to come,” Harrison said.
While Christie’s court appointments have a far-reaching impact, experts say the Keyport decision likely won’t. The ruling issued by the justices is applicable only in times of extreme financial hardship.