Unions get creative in 11th hour

Employee Benefits Rally
An unidentified man watches a rally of thousands last week in Trenton, N.J. to protest legislators' attempts to curtail collective bargaining rights and force more payments for pension and health benefits. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

The protests against Gov. Christie's historic pension and health benefits bill are going on now in Trenton, and the unions have certainly gotten creative. There was a march across the Calhoun Street Bridge - the second "Battle of Trenton" - led by Revolutionary-era reenactors, including a Ben Franklin. There's also a Tent City set up on the back lawn of the Statehouse, with more than 100 neatly lined tents and a "graveyard" for the death of collective bargaining.

Like last week, there's a supersized inflatable rat. There was dancing to Twister Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" and marching to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire."

Still, there's probably only about 1, 000 people here, which is a smaller crowd than last week's protest. School is still in session in New Jersey, so that might have affected the number of teachers who made it out to Trenton.

Meanwhile, inside the Statehouse, Senators are debating and moving toward approval of the bill that would increase the amount of money all state and local public employees pay toward their health and pension benefits. Public-sector unions oppose the bill because it limits collective bargaining over health care.

The debate in the Senate right now is centered around a provision that could limit how employees get health care outside of New Jersey. It is derisively being called the "Norcross provision" -- after South Jersey power broker and Cooper University Hospital Chairman George E. Norcross III. South Jersey legislators in the sphere of Norcross's influence are supporting the bill.

But Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) changed the language of this outside-of-NJ-health-care provision this morning. The bill would create insurance plans to include only in-state providers, and other plans to include coverage for out-of-state providers. Subscribers to the in-state plan would be allowed to seek out-of-state care if their doctors certified that no qualified providers existed in-state. Primary and emergency care would be exempted, and those who currently go to out-of-state specialists would have those relationships grandfathered in.

Meanwhile, the Assembly Budget committee just got underway to consider the bill. Listen to both Senate and Assembly Budget committee proceedings here.

This could all be law by Thursday. There could be ramifications in other states, and it will undoubtedly be compared to the threats to collective bargaining in Wisconsin. Stay tuned.