New Jersey unions rally against proposed benefits cuts

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Spurred on by a tweet from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, thousands of union members crowded around New Jersey's legislative annex Thursday, even spilling into the street, to protest state Senate President Steve Sweeney's calls to cut some worker benefits.

Organizers estimated at least 3,000 people attended the protest, which came on a busy legislative day in Trenton.

In addition to protesting Sweeney's plan, they also lent their support to Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy's proposal to raise income taxes on people making over $1 million a year. The Democrat-led Legislature - with the Assembly facing election this year - has balked at the tax hike.

The scene was carnival-like.

There was a giant inflatable pig smoking a cigar and wearing a top hat. One protester was doing cartwheels as others banged a bongo and drums. Some played tambourines, and others blew whistles. The crowd chanted, "Sweeney says cutback. We say fight back," and "Tax those millionaires."

A message was left with Sweeney, himself an ironworker's union executive. He has long pushed for overhauling the state's pension and retired worker benefits and has defended his plan as necessary to help fix the state's struggling financial circumstances.

The annex is the site of regular rallies and protests in Trenton, though many are not as well attended as Thursday's. On Wednesday, Sanders, an independent from Vermont running for the Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted his support for the protest.

"Politicians must make it clear which side they are on: are they with workers or wealthy CEOs? I call on New Jersey legislators to side with workers and reject pension and health care cuts. I stand with @NJEA and @CWA_NJ," Sanders tweeted.

Sweeney has said he won't post the tax hike for a vote this year. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin has also said he prefers not to hike taxes.

Lawmakers voted five times under former Republican Gov. Chris Christie to raise the income tax on millionaires, though he rejected the increase. Sweeney has said it is critical for the state to address its multibillion-dollar unfunded liability.

He has championed a bipartisan plan that includes overhauling public worker pensions and cutting retiree health benefits.

One measure would protect the current pension of teachers and nonuniformed state, county and municipal employees who have five or more years on the job. But new hires and those with fewer than five years' service would have a hybrid, defined benefit plan on their first $40,000 of income, and a plan more like a 401(k) on income above $40,000.

Another measure shifts all public employees from platinum-level health plans to gold-level plans, which would require them to pay more in premiums. Payments for unused sick time would be limited to $7,500.