N.J. toll takers accuse officials of retaliation

Saturday, March 26, 2011

TRENTON, N.J. — A union representing highway toll collectors is suing the New Jersey Turnpike Authority over attempts to privatize their jobs.

The federal lawsuit, filed March 24, claims the workers’ First Amendment rights were violated when the Turnpike Authority eliminated a provision giving workers a “right of first refusal” to privatized jobs.

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers claims the provision was eliminated after the union protested the privatization effort now under way. It is seeking to stop the authority from moving ahead with privatization until the workers’ right of first refusal is restored.

“This was an ugly and immoral thing to do to workers who have devoted their lives to public service,” said Fran Ehret, president of IFPTE Local 194, in a statement. “It was illegal and violates our First Amendment right to speak out against privatization.”

Labor lawyers for the Turnpike Authority recommended that the provision be modified after workers flooded private companies interested in taking over toll collections with job applications, said Ronnie Hakim, the authority’s executive director.

The original request for proposal stipulated that private bidders agree to offer jobs to laid-off workers before hiring others. It now suggests that the private firms offer jobs to displaced workers, but doesn’t require them to do so, Hakim said.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie wants to privatize toll collections on the Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, eliminating more than 600 jobs on the interstate and 175 on the Parkway.

Proposals from private firms are now being reviewed. The plan is to present a recommendation to the Turnpike Authority board next month.

The contract for union toll takers, maintenance workers and others expires June 30.

Ehret said the union offered $16 million in concessions to keep their jobs, but the Turnpike Authority has refused to negotiate. She said the giveback offer totaled $2 million to $4 million more than Turnpike management asked for to stop privatization.

Hakim said the union’s proposal counted on achieving $10 million in savings from the retirement of 100 workers, although that’s savings that would have been realized anyway because there are no plans to replace retiring employees. The union also assumed $2.6 million in savings from rolling back a 3.5% raise, though Hakim said there’s no indication all the workers who got the raise would agree to give it back.

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