New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who earlier this month said he "loves" collective bargaining, said on Wednesday that he won't haggle over changes to health benefits for public workers.
Christie said he will instead seek legislation to force state workers to pay more for their health care costs.
"No. We're not negotiating this. We're going for a legislative fix," Christie said at a news conference on Wednesday.
Union officials had previously indicated as much, saying that when they met with Christie's negotiators on Friday they would not respond to or counter the union's proposal for health care givebacks.
The contract for roughly 40,000 state Communications Workers of America employees expires in June. Contract talks began last week.
As the state's union work force staged solidarity rallies for public workers in Wisconsin, who were recently stripped of their collective bargaining rights, Christie said he supported collective bargaining and looked forward to a vigorous negotiation process on behalf of taxpayers.
On Wednesday, he said he preferred to work through the Democratic-controlled Legislature on a health benefits overhaul.
"That's the Senate president's plan, too. So this isn't some wild, crazy Republican idea. This is a bipartisan idea that the Senate president and I agree on," Christie said.
Both Christie and state Senate President Sweeney have proposed requiring public workers to pay significantly more for their health insurance. Employees who now contribute 1.5 percent of their salary toward health care costs could see that amount rise to 30 percent of the cost of their plan.
The two plans differ in detail, but both are based on the premise that employers need to shoulder more of the costs of the significantly underfunded system. The state health insurance system for current and retired employees is underfunded by $67 billion.
One major obstacle may be Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who has made no commitment for the Assembly to hear either proposal. The Assembly on Monday adopted a resolution that supports collective bargaining.
"The speaker is always ready and willing to meet with the Senate president and governor on any issue, but the Assembly made it clear on Monday that it respects the collective bargaining process and embraces it as the best course for negotiating employee and employer relations," said Assembly spokesman Tom Hester Jr. "The Assembly wants to see good faith contract talks between the administration and union representatives so a timely and fair contract can be agreed to between both parties that benefits the taxpayers."
CWA spokesman Bob Master said health benefits have been the single most important issue in collective bargaining in the past 25 years.
In 2007, the CWA and then-Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, agreed to state workers would contribute to their health care costs for the first time, requiring employees to pay 1.5 percent of their salaries to health care costs in addition to co-pays and deductibles. The Legislature then passed a bill codifying the change that had been bargained.
Christie argues that because the unions went to the Legislature to codify health care changes in 2007, that avenue became fair game for future reform.
"They codified it so they can't negotiate it anymore," Christie said. "They taught me. I'm learning from the unions."