There will be dueling rallies in Trenton on Friday, both connected to the rumble in Wisconsin. The New Jersey State AFL-CIO is expecting to bring out 4,000 to 5,000 people in solidarity with union members who are protesting Gov. Scott Walker's (R-WI) bill to strip away collective bargaining rights from most public sector unions.
Meanwhile, Americans for Prosperity, a coalition of Tea Party groups that calls itself the state's leading free market, grassroots organization (and has funding from the conservative Koch brothers) will stage a counter protest. AFP State director Steve Lonegan believes public sector unions have too much power and use it to negotiate luxurious benefits, to the detriment of tax payers who pay for them.
"What you've seen as a result of collective bargaining is collective power over elected officials and that's been a dangerous thing for taxpayers," said Lonegan.
Indeed, making claims to "taxpayers" and "working families" is at the heart of this battle. Both the AFL-CIO and AFP contend they are working to save the middle class.
"If they are able to take away collective bargaining — a right which we believe we have in this democracy — this is going to be the end of the middle class," said New Jersey AFL-CIO President Charlie Wowkanech.
There is a fundamental difference in philosophy. Both Lonegan and Wowkanech talk about greed, but they're accusing different people of it.
"It's about time taxpayers stood up and spoke out about the lavish benefits and pensions and salaries that state workers are getting at a time when people in the private sector cannot even remotely expect to get the same thing," Lonegan expounded.
"The poor person that works everyday that tries to do the right thing is now under attack and it's just more greed," said Wowkanech, who blamed Wall Street for ruining pension funds, not workers.
As for the situation in New Jersey, Lonegan said he supported Christie but wished he would go further to limit the power of public sector unions. Wowkanech conceded the need for reform in New Jersey, which has a dire deficit alongside a high tax burden, and he said unions are willing to come to the table and negotiate.
"Our union people are taxpayers and they're working families. They're trying to pay their mortgage, they're trying to put their kids through college in many cases, so we understand there's a problem here," he said.
But he resented the fact that union workers are being labeled the bad guys. "For the last 13 years, the employer who's the state of New Jersey, made no contributions while the workers have been contributing all the time. Now we're the bad people because we have a pension? It's so far out of whack."
Lonegan conceded his protest would be the smaller of the two, but said the point was to send a message of opposition to union power.
"They can tell their workers to leave their office building across the street during a workday and go over to the rally. Our people have to leave their jobs, leave their homes, drive to Trenton, so they'll be a lot more of them I believe than they'll be of taxpayers, but that's OK because they will be a message," Lonegan said.