Feb. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Labor unions, environmentalists, gay and lesbian organizations and anti-war activists rallied in U.S. cities to back public employees who say they are under siege by Republican governors.
“This really is about collective bargaining and the rights of all people to work and support themselves,” said Thomas Cannady, the lead volunteer at a Washington rally today for MoveOn.org, an advocacy group formed to oppose the Iraq war.
Efforts by Republicans in Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey to cut benefits and bargaining rights for public employees have triggered union protests in statehouses and a push by national labor leaders to rally opposition. Today, the unions were joined by allies from causes they describe as progressive and from past Democratic Party campaigns, including those who worked for the election of President Barack Obama in 2008.
Protesters gathered in New York City aimed much of their vitriol at efforts by Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees. Participants at City Hall Park held signs that said “Wake Up! We are all Wisconsin” and wore the yellow cheese-heads favored by fans of Wisconsin’s professional football team, the Green Bay Packers.
“Collective bargaining settles disputes in an orderly way,” Ed Ott, former executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council, said at the rally. “If you get rid of that, you’ll go back to the old way of protests and work stoppages.”
Labor leaders are planning a $30 million campaign to counter the Republican efforts, which strike at the heart of a dwindling movement. Union membership in private industry fell last year to a record low of 6.9 percent, leaving public employees as the backbone of organized labor. Union membership fell to 11.9 percent of the workforce last year, down from a high of 28.3 percent in 1954.
The attack on public workers can revive the labor movement, Van Jones, the former green-jobs adviser to Obama, said in an interview at a rally in Washington.
“Wisconsin lit the spark, but now the candle has to be lit across America,” Jones said.
MoveOn.org took the lead in organizing protests that it said would be held in all 50 state capitals and cities from Boston to Los Angeles. The Sierra Club, Health Care for America Now and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force were among participants.
The public-employee fight is motivating liberal groups to unify after Democratic defeats in the November elections that resulted in Republican control of the U.S. House, gains in the Senate and victories in races for governor and state legislatures, according to Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
“The current offensive against unions has served to jump-start and unify the progressive movement,” Shaiken said in an e-mail. “The rallies are taking unions back to the spirit of the 1930s and adding the energy of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.”
Some participants at today’s rally described unions as a bastion of earlier generations.
Josh Dischinger, 33, a non-union paralegal from Brooklyn who joined the New York rally, said his grandfather was a coal miner in Kentucky. “He always appreciated what the union did for working conditions,” Dischinger said.
Taylor Sappington, 19, a freshman at George Washington University and a speaker at the rally in Washington, said he was protesting in part because his father works for Ohio’s transportation department and risks losing collective bargaining rights.
Walker and Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich “feel they can fix budgets by breaking up unions,” Sappington said.
The governors and Republican state lawmakers say benefits must be trimmed to reduce deficits that may reach a combined $125 billion in the next fiscal year.
In Wisconsin, the state Assembly passed limits yesterday on the collective-bargaining power of government workers’ unions, as Senate Democrats remained out of state to block action on the bill in that chamber. The Oklahoma House is considering a bill to ban collective bargaining for municipal workers, and Tennessee Republicans have introduced legislation that would bar collective bargaining between teachers and local school boards.
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