June 23, 2011 for The Associated Press
by Josh Lederman

TRENTON, N.J. – More than 8,000 public workers and union protesters took to the street in front of the New Jersey Statehouse Thursday in a last-ditch attempt to stop pension and benefits legislation.

Union workers staged a mock New Orleans-style funeral procession for the “the soul of the Democratic party,” lamenting the decision by some Democrats to join Republicans in supporting the legislation. They marched behind a hearse, banging on drums loud enough to be heard inside the Statehouse.

Union leaders also directed protesters to an area behind the Statehouse, where they could be nearest to the chamber where the Assembly was scheduled to vote on a measure requiring public workers to pay sharply higher rates for pension and health benefits. Chanting “kill the bill” in rhythmic repetition, they marched in circles and blew on small blue noisemakers — and even a tuba.

“This is a war for survival,” said Richard Gollin, executive director of AFSCME Council 52. “We’re seeing a thoroughly coordinated campaign to destroy America’s working class.”

The scene on Thursday had elements of a carnival, with painted faces, balloon hats and lawn chairs spread out across the Statehouse lawn. The rally dwarfed the two previous ones workers held over the past eight days as legislative leaders fast-tracked the bill through both the Senate and Assembly.

Next to the giant plastic rat that is often used in union protests at worksites and which has become a regular presence in Trenton in recent days, protesters parked an inflatable, cigar-smoking pig, wearing a tuxedo and a sign around his neck reading “Tax millionaires, not health care.”

A coffin set atop the stage symbolically mourned the departure of Democrats who had defied the unions by supporting the bill. But one after another, Democrats dissenting from their leadership by opposing the bill affirmed for a boisterous crowd their support for collective bargaining rights.

“This is New Jersey. This is why I’m a Democrat,” said Assemblywoman Annette Quijano. “I stand with you today, and I will stand with you tomorrow.”

The bill was scheduled to be taken up late Thursday in the Assembly, with a minority of Democrats expected to join Republicans in delivering the legislation to Christie, who has championed what he calls a plan to rein in out-of-control spending on public workers’ entitlements.

Early Thursday, local clergy held a prayer vigil to support workers’ rights to collective bargaining. Sixteen New Jersey rabbis have signed on to a letter urging lawmakers to oppose the bill.

“This is a time for us to reflect on our faith traditions that teach us that laborers are worthy of their pay,” said the Rev. Bruce Davidson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Delaware Township.

State Police Sgt. Stephen Jones said there were no security issues Thursday — unlike the rally a week ago when two dozen protesters were arrested for interrupting a hearing.