A Tempestuous Afternoon in Trenton

This dispatch from a Wisconsin solidarity rally in Trenton on February 25 got lost in cyberspace, so my new website’s millions of visitors are in luck!

Naturally, the Fox News crew on assignment in Trenton flocked to the most bellicose sign-wielders, interviewing whomever would best reinforce the “crude, obstinate union thugs” counter-narrative that some conservatives have been pushing since organized labor started its occupation of the capitol building in Madison. It’s a tactic clearly meant as retaliation for coverage of recent Tea Party protests, in which sporadic outbursts of vitriol became the focus of prolonged media attention and led many to castigate the demonstrators as unhinged brutes. In any event, Fox’s montage from Friday’s rally features a man proudly displaying a placard declaring “union busters” are “the new terrorists,” a reference to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his apparent New Jersey-based mensch, Chris Christie.

An uncouth of way of addressing the matter, no doubt, but what the Fox segment omits is the man’s reason for being there: he’s a firefighter from Camden, NJ – the country’s most dangerous city – where a third of his coworkers were laid off last month. “We were willing to make concessions,” said Pete Perez, who was terminated on January 18 and led a contingency of 20 ex-firefighters to the rally. “But they wanted concessions of 30 percent above our pay. Is Chris Christie willing to take a 30 percent pay cut? When he takes it, I’ll take it.” Nearly half of Camden’s police force was also fired to fill a budget gap.

Perez is now in the process of applying for unemployment benefits, and occupies his time by staying politically active. He met with Nancy Pelosi in Washington earlier this month after Congress granted Camden and other overburdened municipalities emergency funding to keep their gutted fire departments operating. “Collective bargaining gives us a voice,” Perez said, expressing a sense of obligation for embattled New Jersey public sector employees to show solidarity with their brethren in Wisconsin. Scott Walker has largely replicated Chris Christie’s model of skewering unions at every turn, creating a certain affinity between the two states’ workers.

While the events in Madison were certainly the rally’s impetus – several people wearing cheese-heads could be spotted – much of the rhetoric was directed at Christie, who has reportedly been in close communication with Scott Walker since the Wisconsin ordeal began. “We believe,” said Kevin Crawley, of the CWA local 1037, “and I think what most people believe, is that what’s happening in Wisconsin is going to happen in New Jersey. It may come in some other way. But the goal of the Christie administration seems to be to undercut the union’s right to collective bargaining.”

Last May, the largest rally in Trenton history was held in opposition to Christie’s proposed budget, which instituted unprecedentedly deep cuts to education spending and aid for municipalities. In this year’s budget address, Christie declared that other governors “now look to New Jersey as a beacon of hope,” citing Wisconsin as an example of a state in which “they have decided there can no longer be two classes of citizens: one that receives rich health and pension benefits, and all the rest who are left to pay for them.”

“He wants to create class warfare,” said Jonathan Berg, former Vice Chair of the State Investment council and member of the Communications Workers Association. “He wants to use us as a stepping stool for national prominence, to become president of this country. He has aspirations beyond New Jersey, it’s clear. This is a guy who has all his kids in private school, OK?”

Phil Vanasse, a Teamsters member, brought a sign labeling Gov. Walker a “Koch head” — referencing, he said, an incident this week in which Walker fielded a phone call from a journalist posing as David Koch, the billionaire underwriter of conservative advocacy groups. In the call, Walker said he and his staff had mulled over the possibility of planting agitators among the protesters in an effort to discredit them. “It’s very disturbing,” Vanasse said. “Talking about putting people into the crowds. I don’t think that’s right.”

Down the street, there was a token counter-rally led by Steve Lonegan, the state director of Americans for Prosperity who ran against Chris Christie for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2009. Michael Johns, a speechwriter for George H. W. Bush, gave a brief address in which he asserted that the philosophy of government offered by union members represents “a paradigm that has never created wealth.” One man held a sign likening the entire public employee system to communism, and another, who did not give his name, claimed Richard Trumka was personally “fanning the flames of Egypt” by funneling union dues to opposition forces there. When pressed, the man said his source for this information was the previous night’s episode of Glenn Beck.

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