UNION, N.J. — The meeting of the public-workers’ union had ended, the rallying cries about hostile lawmakers and ominous contract deadlines had given way to a buffet dinner. Sitting down to eat, Andrea Douglas, a claims representative for the State of New Jersey for the past 10 years, quietly conceded what few union leaders say aloud: Government workers have to give up some of their benefits. “I’m a realist,” Ms. Douglas said. “The private sector is looking at us, and we do look good. I know we’ll have to give. Everybody else is asking, ‘How am I going to pay rent?’ ”
Around the table, fellow workers stared, taken aback by her talk of concessions.
“You don’t see it coming?” she said to them. “We’re going to have to give. I’m more than willing to pay more to support my benefits. But you can’t ask me to give so much that I can’t afford to live. At least negotiate with me on that.” Public-sector workers these days are under assault, their hard-won salaries and benefits depicted as drains on the body politic. Labor unions have responded angrily to that sort of talk, pledging to fight to keep what is theirs.
But in interviews and discussions among themselves, public employees express more complicated feelings. The police officers, teachers and workers are struggling with anger and fear. But many also acknowledge that the world they have known and the assumptions they have built their lives on are crumbling before their eyes.
Nowhere has the environment for public workers been more stinging than in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie has earned folk-hero status for his aggressive antiunion posture. And the public has responded: a Quinnipiac University poll released on Thursday showed voters here favored by wide margins wage freezes, furloughs and pension cuts for those on the state payroll.
To be sure, unions have won many victories over the years: current state workers contribute only 1.5 percent of their pay for health care, for example. Mr. Christie wants them to pay 30 percent of the cost of their insurance.
Straining the conversations among neighbors and in bars, breakfast joints and bowling alleys is the growing rift between government workers and their brethren in the building trades: under-employed laborers, carpenters, ironworkers and others who no longer see the powerful public-sector unions as allies.
“It goes back to the idea of divide and conquer,” said Calvin McCullars, a disability-claims processor for 22 years. “A few years ago, nobody really cared about state workers. And now, since the economy went bad, other people are getting laid off, and everybody’s attacking us like we’re doing something wrong. We’re getting picked on, like a scapegoat.”
William Elliott, a state revenue agent, said people seemed to have forgotten that Wall Street greed and deregulation caused the financial meltdown, not working people. “I feel like the public is being played,” he said. “I remember hearing someone say, ‘Why waste a perfect crisis to advance your cause?’ ”
As others filtered out into the icy night, Naomi Monroe, a principal clerk for the Board of Nursing, lingered. She said she was eligible to retire but recently learned that she needed to work another five years to be able to live on her pension.
“The way things are going now, I’ll probably have to look for another job,” Ms. Monroe said. “I keep praying they’ll lay me off, because I’ll make more on unemployment than working, and then at least I can go to school to learn something new.”
Thanks to earlier cuts, people calling her office sometimes have to be put on hold, she said, and at least two or three erupt each day over the delay. “They’re yelling and screaming about how lazy public workers are,” she said. “When I came here, I had hypertension. I’ve been carried out by ambulance before. It’s so stressful.”
A few miles from the State House at JoJo’s Tavern in Hamilton, N.J., an always-crowded gathering place, the pizza is thin-crusted but the atmosphere is thick with griping and dread.