Thousands of unionized police and firefighters rallied at the statehouse Thursday against layoffs and Gov. Chris Christie's plan to have them contribute more to health and pension plans.
Throngs of public safety workers from across the state delivered a loud message to Christie, pointing to a 2009 campaign promise that police and firefighter pensions would not be changed.
New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association President Anthony Wieners has pointed to rising crime, coupled with police layoffs as putting state residents in danger.
“The new normal in New Jersey is New Jersey has a crime problem," Wieners said, using a play on Christie's "new normal" budget message. "We are here to deliver a message in one loud, unified voice, that enough is enough."
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Gloucester County Democrat and union organizer, also drew boos for backing Christie's plan to have workers pay 12 to 30 percent of their health care premiums.
Several Democratic lawmakers joined the rally in a sign of dissent from Sweeney. The crowd repeatedly yelled for Sweeney to address his support for Christie's plan.
"You have earned the right to negotiate your future," Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono told the crowd.
Some elected officials said Christie was targeting the middle class while supporting the state's wealthy residents.
"The working people of this state need to get together and fight this class war,” said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen). “We are now in a battle.”
While national media attention has focused on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's effort to eliminate most collective bargaining, Christie has said he "loves" collective bargaining. He has pledged to be tougher on public employee unions at the bargaining table.
Benefits must be limited to ensure the system's long-term fiscal health, Christie has argued. The state's pension system for public workers, including teachers, police officers and firefighters, is underfunded by $54 billion, according to the governor's office.
Christie called the Thursday's event a "me first rally" at a press conference, but said he respected the state's first responders, NJ.com reported.
"I agree with him," said New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association President Bill Levin. "Every time the bell rings, every time shots are fired, you people say, me first, I go in first."
State troopers estimated around 7,000 people attended the rally, an agency spokesman said. The crowd filled the block in front of the statehouse and overflowed into the park across the street. It was the second major public worker rally in Trenton in recent days.