"This is a defining moment for the labor movement and our middle class," said state AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech. "We are one, we are united, and together we will fight for economic and social justice and our shared democratic values. We must send a strong message that union busting is not a budget solution and that we need to improve the quality of life for all workers — not dismantle it."
State police said 3,100 people attended the noontime rally in Trenton. Tea party activists held a competing rally a block away, but that gathering of fewer than 100 people quickly fizzled amid downpours and wind.
Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer for the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, said her state is ground zero in a nationwide attack on union workers. She and two other Wisconsin union officials flew to New Jersey for the unity rally.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants to end nearly all collective bargaining with public employee unions to help balance the state budget. The Republican Assembly passed his proposal after a battle lasting more than a week. Senate Democrats who oppose the plan but lack the votes to stop it have fled to Illinois to keep the vote from taking place.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was out of state Friday, has proposed raising the retirement age and requiring public workers to pay more for pension and health benefits. He said he supports Walker, a fellow Republican, for taking strong actions to balance the state budget but says he supports "responsible" collective bargaining.
"What's up with your governor, anyway?" AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka asked to loud applause. "What makes him claim that middle-class working people are the haves and you are somehow robbing from the taxpayers?"
Barbara Keshishian, head of the state teachers union, which has often been the subject of Christie tirades over the past 14 months, described the current situation between the governor and the unions as a "war."
"Make no mistake about it," she said, "We are in the middle of a well-funded, well-orchestrated war on organized labor and public education. It is beginning with public-sector unions, but the ultimate goal is to destroy all labor unions."
Asked about the rally during Thursday night's "Ask the Governor" call-in program on Millennium Radio's 101.5 FM, Christie said the protesters "should stay in Wisconsin."
"What we're doing is trying to put New Jersey back on the path of fiscal soundness," he said. "Their problem is, they don't want to pay their fair share."