The Asbury Park Press reports:
After 15 months without a contract, public works employees have begun holding “Passover protests” to bring public attention to stalled negotiations with the township.
The Passover reference is not meant to protest serving the township’s Jewish residents, but to draw their support, workers and their union representatives said.
The Public Works Department is on duty 24 hours a day for three days during the Jewish holiday, which begins Wednesday. The department has the extended hours to assist observant Jewish residents whose activitiies are restricted during the holiday.
“We put those signs out in frustration. We have nothing against the Jewish community,” Tony Ruiz, a union shop steward in the Public Works Department, said at Thursday’s Township Committee meeting. Outside, some 20 workers stood with signs that read: “Passover Protest: Public Workers Are For You. Help Us Get a Fair Contract.” The signs also have been placed around the township.
Several Orthodox Jewish residents standing nearby expressed satisfaction with their garbage pickup service and said they support the workers, though none would give their names.
The workers and their union, Teamsters Local 97, say the township has been unyielding in contract negotiations, even though they say Lakewood public works employees earn on average at least $2 an hour less than their counterparts in Toms River and Brick.
“Many of us have to work two, three other jobs besides this,” Sam Schulman, a heavy truck driver for the parks division, said. “They can’t make ends meet working here.”
Yet township officials said it was the union that ended direct negotiations, brought in a moderator and called for fact-finding.
“This is a total mischaracterization of the process,” Township Attorney Jan Wouters said. “And it’s done all the time when they don’t get what they want.”
Patrick Guaschino, a Teamsters union representative, said the biggest problem with the last contract was not so much money but overly strict disciplinary guidelines.
“We had two terminations in the past two months that we’re appealing,” he said. “These guys are walking on eggshells.”
Public Works Director John Franklin said he was abiding by a negotiation process that the union desired. As for the Passover protests and the signs around town, he said: “That’s all foolishness. Those signs are illegal, and we’re (picking) them up where we find them.”