Union supporters see huge opportunities in N.J. — but also plenty of obstacles

Tom Bergeron/ROI-NJ Gov. Phil Murphy, left, talks with Joe Jingoli, one of the developers of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, which hosted the New Jersey State Building & Construction Trades Council convention.

The irony was not lost on Joe Jingoli.

And he wanted to make sure he acknowledged it to the people in the room.

“Welcome to the Hard Rock (Hotel & Casino) Atlantic City,” he said to the crowd. “I hope you like; you built it.”

Jingoli was opening the New Jersey State Building & Construction Trades Council convention Tuesday morning.

As one of the partners who helped resurrect the once-dilapidated Trump Taj Mahal property into one of the jewels of the new Atlantic City, he said the Hard Rock is now a symbol of union might.

“This building had a history where organized labor was blamed for so many things that were wrong,” he said. “What we did was partner with organized labor, and what we’ve proven here in the week that we’ve been open, is that the partnership delivered a world-class project in record time, safely.”

The test is whether this vision of union effort and excellence can key an economic turnaround in the state.

And whether it will be a turning point for unions, too.

Not surprisingly, speaker after speaker — union leaders and elected officials such as Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) and U.S. Reps. Donald Norcross and Frank Pallone (both D-N.J.), among others — espoused the benefits of unions and talked about how important it is for organized labor to stick together.

Labor appears to have a strong supporter in Gov. Phil Murphy, as well.

Murphy, the final speaker of the morning session, made it clear where he stands.

The governor reiterated his laundry list of issues to prove his allegiance: not just fighting for prevailing wage, but adding more officials to enforce it; better apprenticeship programs; and support of union-backed jobs now (noting efforts to keep the state’s power plants operating) and in the future (pointing to the building of The Hub in New Brunswick).

“So long as I am governor, New Jersey will not belittle organized labor or look the other way when employers cheat their workers,” he said to a rousing ovation. “And New Jersey will not fall for so-called right-to-work or repeal our PLA (Project Labor Agreements) laws.”

Murphy called the opening of the Hard Rock, along with the opening of the nearby Ocean Resort Casino (the old Revel) along with the soon-to-be completely opened Gateway Project (featuring Stockton University and South Jersey Industries) on the other end of the Boardwalk “all the proof we need to see Atlantic City is getting up off the mat.”

“More importantly,” he said, “what’s happening in this city is a sign that, for the men and the women of the construction trades, good-paying union jobs are here to be had in Atlantic City and we’re going to make sure that they are here to stay.”

And, while the event was meant to highlight all of the positive attributes of unions, there were some signs that the road ahead isn’t going to be easy as some would make it sound.

Nearly every speaker talked about staying together.

“We succeed when we are united and fail when we are fractured,” Bill Mullen, the president of the council, said.

Sweeney agreed.

“Let’s stick together,” he said. “Our strength is our unity. As long as we stay together and stand together, we’re going to win, whether it’s the American Dream project or the big power plant that’s going in in Bergen.

“Don’t let them divide us. They’re coming so they can split us apart and weaken us.”

Sometimes, union battles come from within, one official warned.

Tom Bergeron/ROI-NJ
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin was among those who addressed the conference.

David Critchley, the secretary-treasurer of the Building & Construction Trades Council, implored the members in the audience to implore their fellow members to be more active, calling participation in some union labor actions “embarrassing.”

“There are more people at political rallies than labor rallies,” he said.

Another union official, speaking on anonymity for what will soon be an obvious reason, said the governor needs to do more.

“We’ve heard this speech before,” he said. “We need to see more action.”

The governor also was indirectly called out by Mullen, who not-so-subtly suggested Murphy did not do enough (or anything at all) when Sweeney was under attack last election by the New Jersey Education Association.

“The leadership of the NJEA, they’re crap,” Mullen said. “They had a vicious attack on Steve. It got personal.

“And the biggest thing, when this was going on … the Democratic leadership sat on the sidelines, leading many of us to believe they wanted Steve Sweeney to lose.”

Pallone said it’s vital the Democrats take back one or both houses of Congress to stop the union-busting he feels starts at the federal level.

“I have to say, the atmosphere in Washington is such right now that, if we go on much longer with this Republican president and this Republican leadership in the House and Senate, we are going to constantly be faced with right-to-work legislation, with cutbacks on infrastructure, with not enough money for safety and OSHA,” he said. “We do need, this November, to elect a Democratic majority.”

Sweeney, meanwhile, said the state needs to take advantage of the time it has a Democratic majority.

“We had eight years of a Republican governor, and we did OK,” he said. “Now, we have a Democratic governor.

“Now, it’s time to start to getting things done that we need to get done. We need to make sure that prevailing wage is enforced properly. We need to make sure apprenticeship programs are real. We have a great commissioner in the Department of Labor (Rob Asaro-Angelo) — it’s someone who understands labor, probably the governor’s best pick.”

Sweeney said all of this could be a turning point. Could be.

“Let’s not miss this opportunity,” he said. “They don’t come often. Eight years, we battled. We got things done. But, now, with a Democrat governor, there’s a host of things we can do to get things done. There’s a level playing field for us.

“This is a real opportunity if we don’t lose who we are.”

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