New Jersey: The new face of austerity

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by Wayne Deluca
CAMDEN, N.J.—With states across the nation facing budget shortfalls and seeking to balance them on the backs of state workers, New Jersey governor Chris Christie has come into the national spotlight as a model for “tough-talking” state executives. Speculation abounds about Christie as a possible Republican candidate for president.
Since his election in 2009, Christie has welcomed confrontation with the state workers’ unions, particularly the New Jersey Education Association, and has played up his image as a “straight talker” willing to tackle budget deficits. His calls for reform have been on the cutting edge of the vicious right-wing assault on public education, calling for “merit pay,” attacking tenure, and systems of vouchers and charter schools that have been aimed squarely at destroying the power of one of labor’s remaining bastions.
The debate, and Christie’s position in it, have assumed national significance as his ally Scott Walker has made a frontal attack on the right of state employees in Wisconsin. There, the resistance of union workers has made the front pages and inspired protests in all 50 states, including a Feb. 25 rally of over 3000 at the New Jersey statehouse in Trenton.
For years, New Jersey governors—Democrats and Republicans alike—have held back the state’s contributions to employee pension funds, using the money for other projects, while employee contributions have been fully funded. This has forced an unnecessary crisis in these funds, and Christie is now using the promise of a partial state contribution as a bargaining chip to press teachers and other state workers for further cutbacks.
State budget shortfalls cannot be taken outside of the context of ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan that funnel billions to defense contractors. In New Jersey, it is also impossible not to speak of Christie’s $1 billion tax cut for the wealthiest 2% of citizens, while his property tax changes have actually raised taxes on the disabled, the elderly, and those making under $75,000 per year.
Christie’s obstinacy goes beyond unions and has already managed to hurt the expansion of public transit.  Last year he unilaterally killed a proposed commuter rail project between New Jersey and Manhattan that would have doubled the rail passengers into and out of the city, reducing auto traffic and creating both short-term and long-term jobs.
He has also managed to outrage the state’s Black population. In 2010 Christie refused to reappoint the only Black member of the state Supreme Court. His selection panel for a replacement was headed by Peter Verniero, who as attorney general infamously failed to take steps to halt racial profiling by state police when the practice came to light in the 1990s.  Unsurprisingly, they came up with a white Republican loyalist for the post.
Christie has all but thrown his hat into the ring for the Republican nomination for president next year. He is now making criticisms of Sarah Palin, a Tea Party favorite who has relatively few fans outside of those who think that Obama is some kind of socialist. But the real socialists understand that Obama too has no solution for the crisis except for further austerity. The agenda represented by the Chris Christies, Scott Walkers, and Sarah Palins of the world won’t be stopped by voting for another four years of Obama but by the working class declaring its independence from both capitalist parties and building its own party.
Workers from Egypt to Wisconsin have shown the clear way to resist Christie, his friend Walker, and the rest of the austerity measures and union-busting coming down the pike.  Only mass action can save unions, beat austerity, and lead us on the road to a government run by and for working people.

> This article was originally published in the March 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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