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Republicans go after unions in states

By DAVID A. LIEB and SAM HANANEL
February 18, 2011

Protestors to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers demonstrate in the rotunda at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

Republicans who swept into power in state capitols this year with promises to cut spending and bolster the business climate now are beginning to usher in a new era of labor relations that could result in the largest reduction of power in decades for public employee unions.

But as massive public protests and legislative boycotts in Wisconsin this week have shown, the Republican charge can be fraught with risk and unpredictable turns as politicians try to transform campaign ideas into action.

The question GOP governors and lawmakers are now facing is exactly how far they can go without encountering a backlash. Do they merely extract more money from school teachers, prison guards and office workers to help ease their states’ budget problems? Or do they go at the very core of union power by abolishing the workers’ right to bargain collectively? Do they try to impose changes by steamrolling the opposition, or by coming to the bargaining table?

“The consequences will be rolling forth for many, many years,” said James Gregory, director of Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington. “The battle lines have been drawn and will be replicated around the country. This is going to be very tough for unions and public sector employees.”

In Wisconsin, new Republican Gov. Scott Walker is going for it all — the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public employees plus sharp increases in their health care and pension payments. His plan advanced quickly to the Republican-led Senate, despite several days of protests that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators to the Capitol. Then Senate Democrats suddenly fled the state Thursday, bringing the legislative process to a halt.

Wisconsin was the first battleground. But it is unlikely to be the last.

A similar proposal to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights drew throngs of protesters Thursday at the Ohio Capitol. Hundreds more have demonstrated in Tennessee and Indiana, where Republican-led committees have advanced bills to restrict bargaining rights for teachers’ unions. And governors from Nevada to Florida have been touting the need to weaken union powers and extract more money from government employees to help balance out-of-whack budgets.

The confrontation comes as organized labor is reeling from a steady loss of members in the private sector. The public sector, with about 7.6 million members, now account for the majority of workers on union rolls, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among union leaders, a sense of crisis is growing. Labor is preparing to spend at least $30 million to fight anti-union legislation in dozens of states, according to internal budget numbers reviewed by The Associated Press. They’re lobbying local officials, organizing public rallies, working phone banks and buying television and newspaper ads in a desperate attempt to swing public opinion.

“Plans are being put into place to silence workers, lower their wages, cut their benefits and increase the likelihood that they will suffer injuries and fatalities at work,” said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “It is happening at a breakneck pace and too little attention is being paid.”

Labor plans to spend large amounts of money on battles in Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Unions see their goal as not just playing defense — as opponents chip away at bargaining rights — but going on offense to try to educate the public about the role of unions.

But last fall’s midterm elections, which brought the defeat of many union-supported candidates and victories by pro-business Republican adversaries, show the difficulty the unions face in a climate shaped by the sour economy. In many states, Republican governors have blamed unions in part for the state budget crisis by negotiating flush benefit packages for public workers that have forced states to slash aid to schools, social services and important services.

Wisconsin’s legislation, for example, not only would eliminate collective bargaining rights but also force public workers to pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage — increases the governor calls “modest” compared with those in the private sector. It’s projected to save $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, citing an estimated $8 billion budget gap, wants to restrict union rights for state workers and in townships, cities, counties, school districts and publicly funded universities. The legislation would generally eliminate salary schedules.

Kasich drew support Thursday from local tea party leader Ted Lyons, an electronics executive from Troy, Ohio, who said the proposed union changes are long overdue. “The labor unions have become so powerful now on a worldwide basis,” Lyons said. “It’s beyond just the benefits of the membership, it’s about all the spending.”

Lyons’ voice was nearly drowned out by a crowd of protesters.

But some other Republicans are intentionally avoiding the sorts of confrontations that have sparked demonstrations.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the former chief operating officer of computer manufacturer Gateway Inc., won election last November on a similar pro-business agenda and also wants savings from public employee costs. But he’s not seeking to abolish collective bargaining rights and has publicly denounced legislative efforts to strike at union membership and fees.

Snyder wants all government employees to pay 20 percent of their health care premiums. But he’s not ramming the change at unions, and went out of his way Thursday to highlight his desire to work with them.

“As a practical matter, we’re asking for $180 million in concessions, and we know we need to go bargain for that,” Snyder told reporters Thursday after delivering his 2011-12 budget proposal. “We want to do that thoughtfully in partnership with our employees. We’re not here to create threats.”

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Associated Press writers Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Kathy Burks Hoffman in Lansing, Mich., contributed to this report. Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Mo., and Hananel reported from Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press

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3 Responses to Republicans go after unions in states

  1. woody188

    February 18, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    So let’s get the history straight. Unions were made promises that weren’t going to be kept even without a market collapse, but would last some time into the future. Then Gramm/Leach/Bliley/McCain effectively repeals the Glass–Steagall Act.

    The banks took liar loans they knew were bad and likely to default and packaged them as AAA securities. They then sold these MBS’s to pensions while also taking out a “bet” called a CDS that the securities would fail. They also packaged the same mortgage into upwards of 40 different MBS, basically selling the same mortgage to 40 different investors. (Fraud) This largely started with Goldman Sachs under the direction of Hank Paulson.

    Paulson then becomes Treasury Secretary and takes $100 million in deferred compensation for his actions while at Goldman. This continues for most of the Bush Administration’s term and housing ownership reaches an all time high as does median home values. There were even jokes about undocumented workers getting jumbo loans. This is the housing bubble.

    Then the bubble bursts, and Paulson claims it’s going to be financial Armageddon and there will blood in the streets if the banks aren’t propped up. He decides this after he let Goldman’s competition, Lehman Brothers, fail. Despite the fear mongering (terrorism) Congress does not pass TARP on the first attempt. Only after more terrorism is it passed against the popular will of the American people. Obama is elected.

    As credit tightens, businesses that relied on easy credit like GM/Chrysler are forced into government receivership. Their unions are forced to take reduced pay and benefits by Obama’s “car czar” from around $65/hr to $15/hr. TARP money that was supposed to used to buy troubled assets is instead used to buy non-preferred bank stocks. Underwater mortgage holders are foreclosed on at a rate not seen since the Great Depression. Unemployment skyrockets to 9.8% official, and 22% non-official rates. Nothing is done to stop either unemployment or record foreclosures.

    The government bails out AIG. CDS counter-party payments are made to Wall Street banks for their full face value, giving Wall Street banks tax payer money on the sly which is then used to re-inflate stock and commodity markets. These markets force inflation on commodities like food and fuel, causing riots in poorer countries and even regime change in Egypt. Quantitative Easing (money printing) devalues the US dollar by about half, wiping out Americans purchasing power while zero percent interest rates wipe out their savings.

    The Federal Reserve, a private banking conglomerate that helped create the crisis, is given more power over regulating our economy. It is now at their discretion to decide which businesses have “systemic risk” where if they fail, others will be affected, which is always the case in an investment economy. Private Federal Reserve bankers say they are allowed to look at the books of any of these companies and force changes, effectively creating a centralized economy like China’s.

    Flash to today. Public unions are told they have to pay more or take reduced benefits by governors and state legislatures that have to have a balanced budget per their constitutions or face default. This is forced on states earlier than expected due to pension losses from the MBS/CDS banking fraud. States are told by the Fed and Federal government that they won’t get any help.

    Obama’s “Organizing for America” starts rallying state and local union employees in Wisconsin and Ohio helping create a stand-off between the two. Now the stage is set for a possible violent showdown between public workers and government over pay and benefits they lost due to Wall Street fraud and Federal government compliance with Wall Street bankers demands and failure to enforce it’s own laws.

    Does that about sum it up?

    So why does Obama bust the auto workers unions while encouraging public employee unions to walk out and strike?

    Seems like the Federal government wants to force the states into default. Tensions are high, no one wants to lose their benefits, but what people don’t get is that even they raised taxes 150%, it still would not be enough to cover the pension promises that were made. Would public employees take us all down to protect their own interests? Is that what it means to serve the public?

    Ultimately the public employee unions are going to lose. They don’t have the will or manpower to go for months on strike, and state and local governments don’t have the money to pay them even if they did.

    We’re sliding fast down the spiral now. Only question is, how far to the bottom?

    • Carl Nemo

      February 18, 2011 at 7:02 pm

      A spot-on well-written synopsis of what’s happened to America during the past decade Woody.

      As long as no one is held accountable or assets seized from the enfranchised “pirate capitalists” that have cause this grief, the things will spiral out of control until the martial law we talk about is declared, officially turning America into their ‘AmeriKa'; ie., an emergent ‘banana republic’.

      Carl Nemo **==

  2. bogofree

    February 19, 2011 at 1:16 pm

    From what I can determine the article addresses attempts by fiscal conservatives to attempt to reign in costs at the public trough. Specific target is apparently the health care and pension costs that are decimating government at all levels. Even liberals such as Andy Cuomo have become quite pragmatic on this and the lines are being drawn in the sand in NY and nationwide. Seems that the goal is to slowly increase that threshold of employee contributions to both health care and pensions.

    My own personal experience is I have 14 years of experience as a teacher in Massachusetts and collect a modified pension based on my years of service. That pension is greater than what I collect for 30 years of qualified earnings under Social Security. My wife is also a retired teacher and she gets the full 80% pension kiss that far exceeds anything that SS could provide while paying exactly 5% of her income each year as her contribution to the system.

    Our health care is actually a bit on the high side for our contribution – 17.5% of the cost. How many in the dreaded private sector get a quality – and it is – health care for 17.5% of the cost?

    Time for the pols to wake up and address the big ticket items such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.