The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) 43rd International Convention
Good morning, AFSCME!
It is such a pleasure to be here in Boston, my original hometown, with all of you.
Thank you, President Lee Saunders and Secretary-Treasurer Elissa McBride for the invitation to be with you today and for that very warm AFSCME welcome.
Thank you to all the international vice-presidents for your support. I must give a special shout-out to New Jersey’s own Debbie Parks, and to all the AFSCME New Jersey leaders here today, especially Executive Director Steve Tully.
I had the great pleasure of last speaking to an AFSCME audience at a leadership conference roughly ten months ago. At that time, I was engaged in a tough campaign for governor.
I asked you to join me to create a new New Jersey that could be a model for our nation … a state based on the premise that economic progress cannot be possible without social progress, and that social progress cannot be possible without economic progress … a state that honors and respects the rights of labor to organize and represent workers … a state that recognizes that we don’t do well unless everyone does well … and a state that grows stronger by treating residents with fairness.
Today, I get to stand here as Governor of New Jersey.
In no small part because of you, we scored a tremendous victory, and we are well on our way to recreating New Jersey into a state in which these four core values are becoming our lifeblood. We are once again becoming a state in which solutions to our problems rise from the bottom up, instead of being pushed from the top down.
So, let me begin by simply saying, “thank you.” None of what we have achieved already, and that which we hope to achieve in the coming months and years, would be possible without your support.
I’ll touch on some of these accomplishments shortly, but I first want to note the change that we brought into office the moment I completed my oath and took my hand off the Bible – the same Bible upon which President John F. Kennedy, a personal hero of mine and a hero to the labor movement, swore his oath as president in 1961.
And, that change was this – the restoration of simple respect. Eight years of Chris Christie’s attacks on labor, particularly public organized labor, came to an abrupt end. Out went the name-calling. Out went the vilification and blame for seemingly everything going wrong in our state.
In New Jersey, instead of a closed door, my door is open. Instead of being told to “sit down and shut up,” labor now finds a seat at the table. We may not – and will not, I guarantee – always agree. But I will not treat you with disrespect. We will treat each other with dignity, and as adults.
As proof of this new relationship, it is my pleasure to announce that the state of New Jersey has reached a deal for a new contract with its AFSCME-affiliated workers – workers who haven’t had a contract since 2015. This contract will provide fair wages, honor past increments that the prior administration refused to pay, and protect health care, among other benefits. We know that when we work together, we not only ensure progress for our state, but for our workforce.
I don’t think I have to remind anyone here that this not something you are seeing from Washington. The rights of working men and women, and the hopes and dreams of working families, are under seemingly endless attack and vilification by President Trump and pliant Congressional leaders.
Whether it be a tax law that overwhelmingly favors the wealthy few and the biggest corporations, or attempts to undermine and strip away the rights to affordable health care, or immigration policies that are erasing our proud heritage as a nation of immigrants, or stacking the Supreme Court with ideologues, no day, it seems, comes and goes without some new threat to our values.
I have long posited that, in this current atmosphere, governors and states will have never mattered more.
Long the laboratories of democracy, states are now finding ourselves the front line of defense for our democracy.
And, at the front of this charge, I am so proud to say, is the great State of New Jersey.
Through executive action, through legislation, and through legal action, New Jersey is sending a clear message that we will not follow the President down the rabbit hole in a race to the bottom.
We will honor our diversity and wear it as a badge of honor. We will promote the dreams of the middle class and those who aspire to be in the middle class, just as I did as a child growing up in a working-poor family a few miles from here.
And, we will stand tall for the rights of labor to organize and represent workers.
In so much that AFSCME is working for, New Jersey is also working toward the same goal. So, I come here to ask for your renewed partnership. And, when we’re successful, you will be able to point to New Jersey when others say “we can’t,” to show them how “we did.”
This starts with the most vital and pressing issue before you – protecting the sacred right of workers to organize. I watched, as you did, several weeks ago, as the United States Supreme Court did its best to undermine the rights of unions, especially in the public sector. Sadly, we all knew where this case was headed given the rightward tilt of the Court under President Trump.
But, in New Jersey, we were ready for the Janus decision. I am so proud that we took anticipatory action and that I signed our Workplace Democracy Enhancement Act. Now, the rights of workers to organize and form a union, and for unions to communicate with their members, are protected in New Jersey even as they are being weakened in other states.
So long as I am governor – and, I hope, for years after I leave this office – New Jersey will continue to stand in support of workers’ rights, and the rights of unions to act on their behalf.
And, so long as I am governor, we will also push back against the misleading campaigns funded by the Koch Brothers and the DeVos family designed to weaken the rights of collective bargaining and dismantle public-sector unions.
Let’s not be mistaken. Their efforts are not about “employee choice.” It is just right-to-work union busting retooled for the social media age. My state is not Wisconsin. We’re not Oklahoma. We’re New Jersey – and the trend of ripping the heart out of collective bargaining will come to a full stop at our state line.
I am reminded of something then-Senator John Kennedy said in a Labor Day message in 1960, and nearly 60 years later these words ring just as true, and I quote, “Those who would destroy or further limit the rights of organized labor – those who would cripple collective bargaining or prevent organization of the unorganized – do a disservice to the cause of democracy.”
Of course, the best way for us to stand up against these misguided attacks is to strengthen our democracy. We must ensure that we have elected officials who not only recognize the importance of unions, but understand fully the good that unions have done not just for working people, but for all people.
Yes, elections have consequences, as we are seeing now.
While other states are disappointingly trying to fall over each other in creating new impediments to voting, in New Jersey, our goal is to break down these remaining barriers. A few months ago, I made New Jersey the 12th state to enact automatic voter registration to expand and protect the voting rights of their citizens.
And, we further made New Jersey just the fourth state to allow for automatic registration when residents deal with state agencies other than the motor vehicles department.
AFSCME has been a leader in the labor movement in protecting the rights of all Americans to vote, and I am so honored to share in this core value.
Together, we will stand in stark contrast to those whose interests lay in restricting voting rights and suppressing voters’ voices. We will show that an engaged and expanded electorate will do more to promote our values and safeguard our democracy than the efforts of our opponents to summarily disenfranchise American citizens under the guise of “election integrity.”
We know that when more people vote, the progressive values we share win. The values of health care security, tax fairness, and support for our immigrant neighbors, among many others.
And, once again, in each of these key issues, issues which are also important to AFSCME, New Jersey is showing a way forward.
As President Trump and his Congressional and state Republican enablers seek to undermine and gut the Affordable Care Act, in New Jersey, we’re walking in the opposite direction. Yes, health care is a right, and access to affordable health care should not ever be in question.
In one of my first executive orders, I directed all state departments and agencies to coordinate their efforts to ensure that every eligible New Jerseyan knows of the plans available to them under the ACA. I was proud to sign this order in Newark, at the site of an ACA enrollment center run by one of our state’s leading non-profit organizations. Now, they have a real partner in the state of New Jersey.
And, just last month, I signed a new law that will establish a reinsurance fund and reinstate the individual health care mandate in New Jersey starting on January 1, 2019 in an effort to reduce premiums. This will ensure that as the federal requirement is eliminated, New Jersey will continue to work to the ACA’s initial goal of a stable and healthy health care marketplace.
The elimination of the individual mandate, of course, was just one of the provisions buried in the Trump tax law, a law that has unfairness written all over it.
More than 80 percent of the law’s benefits will flow to the wealthiest one percent. Corporations got massive tax cuts, which we now know many aren’t using to invest in their workers, but to initiate stock buy-backs geared to benefit their shareholders.
In New Jersey, we believe something different. We believe that the middle class, and those striving to get a foothold in the middle class, deserve tax fairness. In the budget I recently signed, we put that principle in writing through the implementation of a millionaire’s tax. We also closed a costly loophole that let huge corporations park their New Jersey profits in other states to evade paying their fair share.
Through these efforts, we’re going to be making historic investments in public education, in fixing our ailing mass transit system, in core state programs that benefit a broad array of our residents, in shoring up our long-underfunded public employee pension system, and in tax relief for countless New Jersey households.
Moreover, we’re also bringing to a close the long-standing budget practices that have eroded our trustworthiness. We know we cannot invest in a better future if we are constantly trying to figure out how we just get through the next day. The commitments we made for properly and fully funding our schools, our key programs, and your pensions, are commitments we are going to keep.
So, too, is our commitment to keep New Jersey a state that welcomes everyone who comes seeking a new and better life for themselves and their families. We know exactly what President Trump means when he disparages immigrants for “changing the culture” of the places they seek to call home, and we reject his premise entirely.
In New Jersey, arguably the nation’s most diverse state, we welcome new cultures and proudly add them to the vibrant tapestry that is our state.
As governor, I proudly signed a new law granting in-state tuition-assistance to our Dreamers – students that have grown up in New Jersey, attended New Jersey schools, and are every bit as American as my four kids.
Our budget provides much-needed funding to provide legal support for immigrants fighting deportation.
And, I stand proudly by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, himself the child of immigrants, in his legal challenges to the Trump Administration’s wrong-headed policies on immigration, including its inhumane and heart-wrenching treatment of immigrant children.
I am proud to add my voice to that of AFSCME in calling for commonsense reforms to our immigration system, including a clear pathway to citizenship.
There is a reason the Statue of Liberty, a short boat ride from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, faces out to sea, welcoming those who look to America for a new life. Lady Liberty has never turned her back on our immigrant communities, not once in 132 years. We mustn’t, either – we must have their backs.
On all these issues and more, I am so proud that we stand upon common ground, guided by shared core principles of fairness and justice.
These are the principles upon which AFSCME was founded 86 years ago. They are the principles for which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, gave his life when he traveled to Memphis to stand alongside striking AFSCME sanitation workers. I was especially proud to have AFSCME standing with me in Trenton as we commemorated the 50th anniversary of his death.
And, they are the principles that I am honored to stand for today back home in New Jersey.
They are the reason I signed into law the nation’s toughest equal pay law, and signed another law that made us just the 10th state to offer every worker the peace of mind of guaranteed paid sick leave.
They are the reason why I continue to fight for a livable minimum wage of $15 an hour.
They are the reason why I will continue to fight for tax fairness.
And, they are the reason why I will always respect the rights of labor to organize, to advocate, and to help us move our state forward.
The dark days for union labor in New Jersey are over. The dawn has arrived. Together, let’s grab hold of the promise of this new day and ensure a brighter future for every New Jerseyan, and every American.
Thank you, all, so very much for having me.