Some Republicans ease off anti-union rhetoric

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is seen in Youngstown, Ohio. With a wary eye on Wisconsin, Republican leaders in several states are toning down the tough talk against public-employee unions and even abandoning union-limiting measures altogether. Indiana's governor urges GOP lawmakers to give up a right-to-work bill for fear the backlash could derail the rest of his agenda; Ohio senators plan to soften a bill that would have banned collective bargaining, and the Michigan governor says he'd rather negotiate than "pick fights." (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)

With a wary eye on Wisconsin, Republican leaders in several states are toning down the tough talk against public employee unions and, in some cases, abandoning anti-union measures altogether.

Indiana’s governor urged GOP lawmakers to give up on a “right to work” bill for fear the backlash could derail the rest of his agenda. In Ohio, senators plan to soften a bill that would have banned all collective bargaining by state workers. And in Michigan, the Republican governor says he’d rather negotiate with public employees than pick a fight.

That’s hardly enough to set labor leaders celebrating. They still face a slew of measures in dozens of states that seek to curb union rights. But union officials say they believe the sustained protests in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states are making an impact.

“It’s still too early to tell, but I think the reaction that we’re seeing from governors in other states really shows the power of workers standing together,” said Naomi Walker, director of state government relations at the AFL-CIO.

The fight over labor rights that has spread across the country reached a boiling point in Wisconsin after Gov. Scott Walker proposed a bill that would end virtually all collective bargaining rights for state workers. The legislation would force state and local public workers to contribute more toward their pensions and health care as well as strip them of the right to negotiate benefits and working conditions. They would largely be limited to negotiating pay raises no greater than the inflation rate.

Swelling state budget deficits around the country, along with the effects of the Great Recession on private-sector jobs, pay and benefits, have provided a potent platform for conservatives who argue that taxpayers no longer can afford the compensation, pensions and retiree health care that unions have gained from legislatures in years past. Headlines about state workers retiring at age 55 with six-figure pensions and health care for life don’t help public employees’ image.

Unions and national Democratic leaders have accused Republicans of overreaching in a politically motivated ploy to weaken unions, a core Democratic ally. And they have done their part to fight back, with unions sinking $30 million into a campaign to fight GOP efforts and Democratic activists helping to mobilize demonstrators.

“I think a number of other governors have decided that they do not want the kind of frustration that we see in Wisconsin,” said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate. “I think they are taking a wise course in trying to solve problems rather than trying to lead a political crusade.”

In Indiana, top Republican legislators have declared dead a “right to work” bill that would prohibit union representation fees from being a condition of employment at most private companies. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is considering a presidential run, had been saying since December that he wanted to avoid a showdown with labor that could distract lawmakers from moving on proposals such as revamping public schools and the state budget.

As in Wisconsin, the clash has drawn hundreds of protesters to the Indiana Statehouse and led most House Democrats to leave the state to shut down legislative business on the union bill and a slate of other issues. Daniels has appealed to the lawmakers to return because “their conscience tells them they should do their duty.”

Republican Senate leaders in Ohio agreed to modify a bill that would have banned all collective bargaining by state employees. The GOP change — albeit minor — would allow workers to negotiate on wages but still would ban strikes.

Ohio Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus denied the protests had any effect, saying the decision came after listening to hours of testimony. Democratic leaders consider the change “window dressing” and still want the bill scrapped.

It was still unclear Thursday whether leaders in the Republican-led Ohio Senate would be able to muster the GOP support needed to pass the bill in its current form.

Meanwhile, governors in Michigan and Florida appear to be taking a more conciliatory approach to unions, hoping to avoid the full-fledged brawl in Wisconsin.

“That’s not our path,” said Michigan’s Rick Snyder, who won election on a pro-business agenda. He said he wants cost savings, too, but “I and my administration fully intend to work with our employees and union partners in a collective fashion.”

Likewise, Florida Gov. Rick Scott told a Tallahassee radio station, “As long as people know what they’re doing, you know, collective bargaining’s fine, but be honest with people, be honest with taxpayers. If you’re going to give these benefits to people, whether it’s pension benefits or health care benefits, let’s all be honest about it.”

Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the scope of the Wisconsin demonstrations seems to have caught Republicans by surprise.

“These guys in other states are equally conservative, but they don’t want to create an unnecessary conflict which may prove politically embarrassing,” Lichtenstein said.

But the polite talk doesn’t mean Republican governors are backing down from other measures that could weaken union clout. Public employees in Florida, for example, are a focus of the Republican-controlled Legislature through proposals that would direct new hires to a defined contribution retirement plan, reduce health benefits and prohibit union dues deductions from paychecks.

In Tennessee, Republicans in the state Senate are moving forward on a bill to strip teachers of collective bargaining rights.

And union protests haven’t deterred Republican lawmakers in Missouri from advancing a “right to work” bill that bars union membership or fees from being a condition of employment. Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer told The Associated Press that he intends to bring the legislation up for debate next week and is prepared for a lengthy Senate discussion.

“I’m aware that (protests) could take place and happen, but it will in no way keep me from moving forward with trying to implement the law,” said Mayer.

James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said those governors who have made it a priority to rein in public employee unions appear resolved to keep up the fight.

“There shouldn’t be a heckler’s veto,” Sherk said. “You shouldn’t allow the voice of a few tens of thousands of protesters to drown out the millions of voters who expressed a desire for a change of course and more conservative policies.”

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Associated Press writers Tom Davies in Indianapolis, Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla., and David A. Lieb in Jefferson City, Mo. contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press

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