Politics 2011: Defanging public unions

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International  |  April 10, 2011 at 4:15 AM
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Public employees might be feeling like deer caught in headlights as state after state sets its sights on slashing collective bargaining rights and public sector pay.

Battles royal in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana may have captured the headlines, but Iowa, Michigan, Tennessee, Florida, Minnesota and Pennsylvania also are considering bills that would alter collective bargaining by government workers.

The fight in Minnesota, which just got started, has battle cries that echo across the United States. Unions accuse Republican lawmakers of attacking them and the GOP responds with, "No, we're controlling spending."

Last week, GOP-majority lawmakers in the North Star state passed bills that would freeze state workers' wages, eliminate more than 5,000 state jobs, hike employees' health insurance costs, ditch teacher tenure protections and erode their right to strike.

"It brings Wisconsin right to Minnesota," Eliot Seide, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, the largest state workers union, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Not so, Republican leaders say. Minnesota faces a $5 billion budget deficit so they must get state spending under control and change how government services are delivered.

"When did it become anti-labor to try to avoid layoffs in a crippling recession?" Deputy Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel asked. "There is no doubt that what we have passed provides for more tools for multiple levels of government to get through a really rough economy, a really rough financial situation."

The big difference between Minnesota and Wisconsin? Governors -- Minnesota has Democrat Mark Dayton as a balance against a Republican-led Legislature and Wisconsin has Scott Walker, making the legislative and executive branches of government Republican.

The current backlash against public unions could reflect that President Obama is the most liberal president in many a decade, said Steven E. Schier, a national political commentator and political science professor at Minnesota's Carleton College in Northfield, south of Minneapolis.

"That's led the Tea Party to believe that we're at a drastic moment requiring drastic action," Schier said.

It doesn't matter that unions are willing to accept limits on pay and benefits, Schier said. That they don't want to cede their right to bargain is what has lawmakers in a dither.

Schier said just how far this legislative assault goes depends on the Tea Party movement, which is losing some if its appeal

"I think a lot is related to the strength of the Tea Party movement," he said. "How the Tea Party movement fares will determine how far restrictions are made on state spending and on public employee unions."

He noted some ideas, such as small government, seem great in the abstract but have people "wanting to push the pause button" when reality budges.

While Minnesota GOP lawmakers aren't making blatant assaults on union bargaining rights as Republican lawmakers and governors in other states, Seide and Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, said they're trying to achieve the same goals but calling it reform, the Pioneer Press reported.

Minnesota Republicans are taking conservative ideas "out of the same playbook" as Republicans in Wisconsin, Ohio and half a dozen other states, Monroe said.

"It's an attempt to break public-sector unions," he said.

Nationally, the AFL-CIO organized protest rallies in all 50 states last week to "call for an end to the attacks on working people." The rallies also commemorated the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968 while he was in Memphis supporting striking sanitation workers.

The situation in Florida is the same but different. A Republican-led Legislature has several bills that would ratchet back union strength, curb a union's ability to collect dues through automatic paycheck deductions, force them to get written permission from each member before making political contributions and call for unions falling below a certain level of membership to be stripped of collective bargaining rights, The St. Augustine Record reported.

But -- and this is key -- Florida has a state constitutional provision that protects public employees' right to collectively bargain, meaning lawmakers are limited in what they can do to curb unions.

During a recent pro-union demonstration in Tallahassee, Florida Tea Party activist Mabel Ryan said the Republican mega-wave in the November elections was a huge boost. "We won, and they lost," she said, of participants in the pro-union demonstration. "[And] we're going to win again."

That sentiment bothers long-time veteran state employees such as Kathleen Reese, who spent 33 years as a child welfare and elder services worker.

"State workers are very hard working and dedicated," Reese told the St. Augustine newspaper. "We're not sitting around twiddling our thumbs."

And it's not just unions being given the once-over, Schier said.

"Basic public services are being challenged in a way they never were before -- not just provision but in organization," Schier said. "How much will the public will tolerate … is a political rise for conservatives."

Unions, meanwhile are "clearly energized" by events in various states, but are spending money now that they may need later in the election cycle, he said. In the short term, the controversies accompanying the public bargaining bills benefit Democrats "because the base has energy it hasn't seen since 2008."

It also gives Republicans some short-term success because union power is reduced, the political observer said.

"The long-term effectiveness and staying power of the GOP efforts against unions will hinge on the 2012 election outcome."

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