Saturday, February 26, 2011

GOP guvs ease away from anti-union battles

GOP guvs ease away from anti-union battles

Taking a lesson from pitched battles in Wisconsin, some fear backlash could derail agendas.
Last update: February 24, 2011 - 9:24 PM
WASHINGTON - 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 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 having an effect.
"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.
Swelling state budget deficits nationwide, along with the effects of the recession on private-sector jobs, pay and benefits, have provided a potent platform for conservatives who argue that taxpayers can no longer afford the compensation, pensions and retiree health care that unions have gained 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.
'They are taking a wise course'
"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.
Republican Senate leaders in Ohio agreed to modify a bill that would have banned all collective bargaining by state employees. 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 -- allowing workers to negotiate on wages but ban strikes -- "window dressing."
'Shouldn't be a heckler's vote'
Meanwhile, governors in Michigan and Florida appear to be taking a more conciliatory approach to unions, hoping to avoid the brawl in Wisconsin. "That's not our path," said Michigan's Rick Snyder. "I and my administration fully intend to work with our employees and union partners in a collective fashion."
Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said, "These guys in other states are equally conservative [as in Wisconsin], but they don't want to create an unnecessary conflict which may prove politically embarrassing."
But that 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 GOP-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, Senate Republicans are moving forward on a bill to strip teachers of collective bargaining rights. And Republicans in Missouri are advancing a "right to work" bill that bars union membership or fees from being a condition of employment.

James Sherk of the conservative Heritage Foundation said those governors who have made it a priority to rein in unions appear resolved to fight. "There shouldn't be a heckler's veto," he 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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