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Union Feuds With Top Jersey Democrat Over Pensions

Having sparred continuously with Republican Gov. Chris Christie over education issues, New Jersey's leading teachers' union is now redirecting some of its fire toward one of the state's top Democrats.

The New Jersey Education Association released an ad attacking state Senate President Stephen Sweeney for backing a deal with Christie to require teachers and other public workers to pay more for benefits.

Christie and leaders of the Democratic-controlled legislature, including Sweeney, announced this week that they had reached an agreement that would lower state costs through changes to pensions and health care. That proposal is expected to go before lawmakers next week.

But the deal outraged the union, which argued that the changes would "massively increase costs (up to several thousand dollars per employee, per year) while greatly diminishing benefits."

Teachers' unions around the country have long aligned themselves with Democrats. But the NJEA unveiled an advertisement blasting Sweeney and alleging that he was acting at the behest of a businessman who they described as "New Jersey's most powerful political boss," George Norcross. (See the ad below.) Norcross is the executive chairman of an insurance brokerage corporation, Conner Strong & Buckelew.

Sweeney and Norcross have said the NJEA's criticism is out of line, and that the pension changes are necessary to bring down the state's costs.

"The NJEA is fiddling with our teachers' money while Rome burns," Sweeney said in a statement. "This $1 million attack ad won't do a thing to save the pensions of hundreds of thousands of teachers and retirees from collapse, or give property taxpayers any relief from the ever-increasing weight of health benefits that hangs around their necks."

Sweeney delivered a defense of his stance in testimony before a legislative committee this week.

"When I wake up in the morning, I wake up as a labor leader," the Democrat said. "I make my living as a labor leader. My business cards have union bugs on them and my car is American made. My life is union."

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