Free speech just got tarred and feathered again at a town hall at Rutgers University. This time, it was by tribalists on the left. And it was just as bad as when we see it on the right, at Trump rallies.
Don’t blame the college kids – these were adult public worker union members, shutting down speakers.
Senate President Steve Sweeney was trying to present his plan for pension and health benefits reform, along with distinguished wonks like Richard Keevey, a former state budget director now with the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.
WATCH: Rowdy town hall on pension reform spirals out of control as furious crowd heckles politicians
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney hosted a town hall in Rutgers on his new financial plans for the state. He was greeted by angry — very angry — union members.
The union members were there just to drown them out. They looked like a jeering section of the high school bleachers: booing, blowing ear-piercing whistles and blasting a 1980s hair-metal song from a hidden boom box.
The panelists sat staidly before the power point presentation they’d prepared; the helpless teachers. They had come to engage on the facts.
We are facing a fiscal crisis that can’t be solved with tax hikes alone. New Jersey’s unfunded liability for pensions and health benefits now tops $150 billion – four times the size of the state budget.
Union leaders want a hefty tax increase, beginning but not ending with millionaires. Yet any solution will also require spending cuts. Most of the money is in pension and health benefits, so the best hope is to find cuts that minimize the pain for their members.
Sweeney’s been holding one town hall after another, to educate folks on this crisis. He deserves credit for convening thinkers on both sides of the aisle, with long experience in government. This is how democracy is supposed to work.
At least he’s offering a plan, which no one else has, including the governor. Now Sweeney is threatening to go around Phil Murphy, if necessary, as a tool to negotiate. Let the voters decide on public worker benefits.
The union is livid. But he still has a right to propose this without being shouted down.
“Millionaires tax! Millionaires tax!” the mob chanted as he took the stage. Never mind that this won’t come close to solving the problem.
Keevey did his best, taking the podium to explain that Sweeney’s pension plans would not affect anyone currently vested in the system. “Why don’t you listen?” he asked the hecklers.
They shook their heads like they didn’t believe him. But what do you accomplish, exactly, by shouting down the budget guy?
Hetty Rosenstein, head of the Communication Workers of America, said her people in red shirts weren’t the bullies. Big-armed men from Sweeney’s trade union were “there to deliberately intimidate” the public workers, she insisted.
CWA leader Seth Hahn, who was present, said Sweeney supporters shouted at the public union members to shut up.
Perhaps this was so the panelists could finally speak. Yet rather than allow that, the jeerers thuggishly shut down Sweeney and Keevey’s presentation – along with Sen. Sam Thompson and professor Marc Pfeiffer, who worked for the state for nearly three decades and is now at the Bloustein school. The real bullies wore red union shirts.
Sweeney, a former iron worker and union man himself, told us Friday, “We stopped using these tactics years ago, and realized trying to have discussions and work through the problem is a hell of a lot better than just yelling at each other.” Maybe someday the CWA will listen.
- POLITICO London Playbook, presented by London First: Another day, another vote — ‘Keep buggering on’ — The history May-ker
- POLITICO London Playbook: A deal in three weeks? — America goes to the polls — Wright man for the job
- POLITICO London Playbook: Bank holiday sunshine — May prepares for battle — Iran countdown
- POLITICO London Playbook, presented by London First: Moment of truth — Benn pulls out — Hand of history on her shoulder
- POLITICO London Playbook: Britain’s top diplomat — Trump vs. the world — A year ago today
- POLITICO London Playbook: Last throw of the dice — Inside the Brexit camps — Beard of the year
- Eamonn Sweeney: 'Michael O'Leary is a man used to winning
- 2 NJ teachers file suit alleging union dues collected without consent
- N.J. Supreme Court sides with public worker unions, Legislature in spat with Christie