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Monday, October 15, 2018

Is Plainfield doing away with Civil Service?

Magic 8 Ball is having trouble getting a clear answer.

NOTE: This post has been edited to remove references to a local bargaining unit. -- Dan

For some time now, rumors have been floating around that Plainfield might try to do away with civil service.

Finally a firefighter brought the matter up at the employee meeting Mayor Mapp hosted this past Wednesday to explain the new departmental organization set up by Council ordinance recently.

I am told that instead of straight out saying the City would not consider such a move, Mayor Mapp explained that he had been considering it earlier this year by way of a ballot referendum but that such a change would require action by the Legislature.

I had been taught from grade school up that civil service was almost sacred, and has saved American governments at all levels from incompetence, fraud and graft. While not in our founding documents, it is regarded as one of the pillars of good government and is securely knit into the thinking of American citizens.

The list of civil service jurisdictions in New Jersey fills nine single-spaced pages; in Union County alone there are 21 civil service jurisdictions (these include municipalities, libraries, and housing and other kinds of authorities) -- heavily weighted to Democratic towns.

Reaction among some city workers was swift, wondering whether their local bargaining unit would benefit from affiliating with a national union such as AFSCME (American Association of State, County and Municipal Employees).

The police and fire divisions already belong to national unions and benefit from the muscle that gives them in negotiations over wages and working conditions.

Public Works employees were also at one time members of the Teamsters, a fearsome national union.

Why would anyone even consider getting rid of civil service?

The principal reason would be to end employee job security and replace it with serving totally at the pleasure of the appointing authority.

Now, you have to understand that civil service employees can be disciplined (and often are) and can even be fired for cause after due process. The difference abandoning the civil service system would make is that employment would be at the whim of the boss.


Civil service began with the federal government in 1871 with the passage of the first civil service bill, requiring examinations for competence and merit-based appointment. Up until that time, hires for the federal government did not have to have ANY qualifications at all, and government jobs were sources of immense graft and corruption.

In 1873, the new law was strengthened by preventing the firing of civil service employees, removing them from the influence of political patronage and partisan behavior.

Up until then employees could be fired when there was a change of administrations, a falling out with a superior, and even getting married or pregnant (Imagine that!).

In 1978, the federal civil service law was revised once again, giving the Commission the power to oversee the right of employees to form unions.

Not long after the federal civil service was established, states began to see the wisdom of stabilizing their own workforces.


New Jersey, in 1908, was the 6th state to adopt civil service. In 1918, NJ classified positions and standardized compensation rates.

In 1930, New Jersey updated the law, providing for work times, annual vacation and sick, military and other leaves.

The 1947 New Jersey Constitution, which still today governs what can and cannot be done, included a "merit and fitness" provision enshrining civil service.

So there is a long history both nationally and in New Jersey and civil service has been of inestimable benefit to every level of government and curbed abuse of employees.


We should also know a little of the history of AFSCME (the abbreviation for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).

The union began among state workers in Wisconsin in 1932, who were worried that the new Democratic administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt might want to get rid of civil service (they did not yet know that he -- and the Democratic Party -- would become among its staunchest supporters).

By 1936, the union had grown to include county and municipal workers in Wisconsin and had joined the American Federation of Labor (the formation of the more militant Congress of Industrial Organizations being still somewhat in the future).

By 1968, the union (now AFL-CIO) had expanded greatly and led a strike of New York City workers over pay and working conditions that virtually shut the city down.

After that, its membership surged to 450,000 after the militant Local 1199 healthcare workers affiliated.

In 1968, AFSCME represented the Memphis sanitation workers in their strike against appalling working conditions and pay.

It was in support of these striking sanitation workers that Dr. Martin Luther King came to Memphis, where he was slain by an assassin's bullet.

In the 1990s, AFSCME's big fight -- which they won -- was against the drive to contract out public service jobs, thus undermining working conditions and pay.

Since 1998, 350,000 new members have joined AFSCME, many from small independent bargaining units -- like Plainfield's.

In July of this year, NJ Gov. Phil Murphy signed a new contract with the state's 6,500 AFSCME employees. You can learn more about AFSCME in New Jersey here.

All of this ought to give one great pause.

But even greater than this, one would lose credibility with his fellow Democrats for even considering such a move.

Not to mention the backlash among Plainfield voters, many of whom are City employees or have relatives, neighbors or friends who are.

This matter merits everyone's closest attention.

It could be the "3rd rail" in Plainfield politics.

 -- Dan Damon [ follow ]

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