Workers’ Rights Battle Goes National at Pivotal Time for Labor

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey. Photographer: Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg

Unions and their allies are planning rallies, vigils and press conferences in at least 27 states this week against what they see as a national attack on government employees that is a seminal moment for organized labor.

Demonstrations are spreading from Wisconsin and Ohio, where bills from Republican governors to curtail collective-bargaining rights have attracted thousands of protesters. Efforts include lobbying all week against measures in Indiana and a Feb. 25 AFL-CIO rally to warn New Jersey Governor Chris Christie “not to balance the budget on the backs of middle-class families.”

U.S. states face deficits that may total $125 billion nationwide in the next fiscal year. Labor leaders say legislative battles over curbs on government employees’ power and pay are an assault on unions and their support of the Democratic Party. The state collective-bargaining bills and the Washington showdown over federal spending, may answer fundamental questions about government’s role and the future of the U.S. worker, they say.

“The Republican Party’s strategy is to turn working Americans against one another -- unionized versus non-unionized, public versus private, older workers close to retirement age against younger ones who don’t believe Social Security will be there for them,” Robert B. Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an e-mail. Reich was labor secretary under President Bill Clinton.

Across the Nation

In 17 states, government employees are the subjects of efforts to restrict their union rights and curb earnings, said Steven Kreisberg, collective bargaining director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Measures are pending to limit negotiations, impose unpaid time off and cut pay, he said in a telephone interview from Washington. Bills to restrict collective bargaining are under consideration in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Idaho, he said.

Christie and other Republican governors including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and John Kasich of Ohio say states and the nation are out of money, and governments at all levels need the tools to reduce budgets.

“Our bills are due, it’s time for us to move forward,” Walker, 43, said yesterday at a press conference in the state Capitol in Madison. “We’re going to balance the budget the right way, and we’re not going to push it off to the next generation of taxpayers.”

It’s a critical moment for labor because of the share of membership now coming from government ranks, said John Russo, a professor and co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

In Solidarity

Nationwide, of the 14.7 million workers in unions last year, 7.6 million of them worked for governments, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Unions and their allies are holding “solidarity events” in Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey and 24 other states this week, Eddie Vale, an AFL-CIO spokesman, said in a telephone interview from Madison, Wisconsin.

President Barack Obama has called the Wisconsin bill “an assault on unions.” Organizing for America, the White House’s political operation, is helping state Democrats make phone calls and perform other grassroots work in opposition to the legislation in Ohio, said Chris Redfern, chairman of the state party.

“It is, at the end of the day, one of those seminal moments in our political lifetimes: do we go back, or do we go forward?” Redfern said in a telephone interview from Columbus, the capital.

Money Flowing

Government unions are major contributors to Democrats as the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has opened financial floodgates for money in politics. Last year, unions spent more than $200 million to try to maintain the party’s control of Congress, following the $400 million they spent to elect Democrats to the White House and Congress in 2008, Bloomberg News reported Nov. 3.

Yesterday, the Arizona Democratic Party sent members an e-mail urging them to attend a statehouse rally or work on a “virtual phone bank” to let people know what’s happening in Wisconsin.

The state became a flashpoint after Walker unveiled a “budget-repair bill” on Feb. 11 to help fill a $137 million deficit in the current fiscal year and an estimated $3.6 billion shortfall in the next biennium, Vale said.

The People’s Voice

Walker wants to restrict collective bargaining and require government workers to pay more of their health-care and pension costs. The move is more about breaking unions than balancing the budget, said Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller of Monona, who with 13 Democratic colleagues fled the state to prevent the Republican-controlled Senate from voting. He spoke by telephone from an Illinois location he wouldn’t disclose.

Crowds of as many as 60,000 have been flocking to the Capitol in Madison to demonstrate, and protesters are expected to return today.

John Ganahl, a 47-year-old from Madison who works in video production, came to the scene yesterday.

“It’s OK that our government employees contribute to their pension and their health care,” Ganahl said. “What I don’t think is fair is to remove collective bargaining. I think that that removes the voice of the people.”

The bill is strictly concerned with the budget and granting agencies flexibility, Walker said at the news conference. The measure still would let workers negotiate wages, he said.

Busing Them In

The 50,000-member Indiana State Teachers Association and other labor groups plan events at the statehouse in Indianapolis every day this week, Jeff Harris, a spokesman for the state AFL-CIO, said in a telephone interview. The AFL-CIO is nation’s largest union organization and says it represents more than 12 million people.

Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, who issued an executive order on his first day in 2005 that ended collective bargaining for state employees, supports a bill to limit teachers to negotiations for wages and wage-related benefits, spokeswoman Jane Jankowski said in an e-mail.

Today in Ohio, buses are scheduled to leave from Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown to bring protesters to Columbus. A Senate committee has a 4 p.m. hearing on a bill to eliminate collective bargaining for state workers and restrict bargaining for teachers and local government workers to wages only.

The Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, the Ohio Association of Public School Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have held five meetings since Feb. 7 to mobilize members to join protests, make phone calls and call radio talk shows, said Dennis Willard, a spokesman for the unions.

Time to Pay

National attention on the protests in Wisconsin encouraged members to get involved, he said.

Walker, a first-term governor whose fellow Republicans control the Assembly and Senate, campaigned on a platform of fiscal conservatism after clashing with unions while Milwaukee County’s elected executive. He wants government employees to pay 5.8 percent of their salaries toward their pensions; they pay nothing now. He also wants them to pay about 12 percent of their health-care premiums, up from 6 percent, to generate $30 million for the state in this fiscal year and $300 million in the next biennium.

Unions have agreed to accept those provisions if Walker drops his attempts to restrict collective bargaining to wages and to require workers to vote each year on membership, said Miller, the Wisconsin Senate Democratic leader.

The governor’s rejection of that offer exposes him as being “bent on taking worker’s rights,” Miller said.

Managing Money

It’s difficult to predict how much the proposed change in collective-bargaining rules would save local governments and schools because not all entities will apply the changes in the same way, said Andrew Reschovsky, a professor of public affairs and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Ohio Legislative Services Commission also didn’t estimate savings, noting that about 360,000 state and local government workers were covered by 3,290 contracts in fiscal 2010.

“If a company can’t manage its costs, it usually goes bankrupt,” Kasich told reporters Feb. 18. “But if a company can manage its costs, and if the state can manage its costs, and if local government can manage its costs, we’re going to be on the right footing.”

Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat who lost last year to Kasich, said government workers are “scapegoats” for budget deficits they didn’t cause.

“The final conclusion will be determined by whether or not the people are willing to fight for their rights and to stand up for their rights and not allow themselves to be bullied,” Strickland said in a telephone interview from Columbus.

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