June 20, 2011 for The Associated Press
by Josh Lederman

TRENTON, N.J. – The protest outside the New Jersey Statehouse had all the usual trappings of a tea party rally: colonial costumes, allusions to governments infringing on rights and rattlesnake-emblazoned Gadsden flags reading “Don’t tread on me.”

But this was no tea party. It was a union demonstration.

In rallies and public statements, unions are using tactics that seem pulled directly from the tea party playbook, such as appeals to follow the Constitution, heed the will of the Founding Fathers and protect the American way of life.

While slashing government spending is paramount to the tea party’s ideology, maintaining or increasing state spending on pension and health benefits is at the crux of public workers’ demands in New Jersey.

Unions are fighting tooth-and-nail against legislation that requires public workers to pay more for benefits and curbs their ability to bargain collectively for them. They’re placing the blame for the state’s budget predicament on politicians who didn’t put enough tax dollars into the system to begin with.

“We all must continue to fight for our right to petition our government for redressive grievances. We all have a right to collective bargaining,” said a woman impersonating Abigail Adams, the wife of the second president.

She wore an 18th century-style dress with white apron and cap as she joined about 200 protesters who arrived at Monday’s rally after marching across a bridge from Pennsylvania to mark the “Second Battle of Trenton,” a reference to the battle that followed George Washington’s 1776 crossing of the Delaware River.

Clashes over collective bargaining rights for public workers have taken place across the country this year, most visibly in Wisconsin and Ohio. But in both of those states, Republicans control the governor’s mansions and the legislatures, setting up a tussle between Democrat-backed unions and Republican politicians.

The dynamics are different in New Jersey, where Democrats control the Assembly and Senate. Republican Gov. Chris Christie cut a deal with Democratic legislative leaders, leaving labor scrambling for ways to avoid the appearance of having lost public opinion.

“It always makes sense to show even though you’re protesting the system, the government, you want to identify as being patriotic,” said Ben Dworkin, a political scientist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. “That it isn’t that you’re opposing the country, just the people who are running it.”

The Gadsden flag, an anti-British symbol of the American Revolution that has become a staple at tea party rallies, has started appearing in New Jersey.

While legislators hold hearings on the benefits legislation, protesters outside chant “Kill the bill,” a mantra used during tea party resistance to federal health care reform. (Union leaders point out it’s been used before in many contexts.)

“Impersonation is the best form of flattery,” said Steve Lonegan, director of Americans for Prosperity-New Jersey, which backs the tea party movement. “Because they really lack originality, they rip off the dynamics of the tea party movement.”

The tea party doesn’t hold a monopoly on references to American values, symbols or history, said Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

“Our members are patriotic Americans,” Baker said. “They love the Constitution and are very concerned about what they see happening in New Jersey, because it comes across as very un-American.”

Union leaders told The Associated Press there was no intentional strategy involving tea party-associated tactics.

“What you’re hearing and seeing is making a connection to democratic principles in this country for the critical human rights of collective bargaining,” said Hetty Rosenstein, state director for the Communications Workers of America.

The common thread between the tea party on the right and public unions on the left is that both are trying to keep things the way they are, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“Both protests are by definition reactionary. You have what conservatives would say is radical change to health care on one hand,” Kondik said. “What the unions may be trying to do is preserve the existing structure they have, their existing rights.”

But while there was some talk about rights during the Wisconsin protests, which were at the center of the national collective bargaining debate, they were never a consistent theme, said Mordecai Lee, who teaches political science at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“My hat off to New Jersey for a new chapter in propaganda,” Lee said.