Unions clash with cost-cutting state legislators

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DENVER

Unions invested heavily in the 2008 election in Colorado, and it paid off: The labor movement defeated three anti-labor initiatives, including a right-to-work measure, and helped Democrats increase their edge in Congress and the Legislature.

Instead of celebrating, however, labor leaders find themselves butting heads with the very people they helped elect. Last week, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, confronted with a $56 million budget deficit, asked the city’s police, sheriffs and firefighters unions to absorb a 2 percent cut in their scheduled 2009 pay increases.

It’s a scenario being played out nationwide as states and municipalities grapple with the economic downturn. Forced to make deep budget cuts, many elected officials are opting for the low-hanging fruit of union contracts by slicing into pay increases and paid workdays.

Sometimes the unions are cooperating, and sometimes they’re not. In Denver, for example, two of the three public-safety unions have agreed to discuss the possibility of renegotiating their contracts.

More often, however, unions are going on the warpath, often against Democratic executives and legislatures. The most visible examples can be found in New York and California, the states with the nation’s largest budget deficits, the biggest unionized public-employee labor forces and, consequently, the most heated labor battles.

New York Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat, provoked the ire of public-employee unions earlier this year when he made it clear that he would opt for budget cuts over income-tax increases to deal with the state’s $15.4 billion deficits.

His $121.1 billion budget, released Dec. 16, would cut more than 3,000 jobs from the state employee rolls, eliminate a scheduled 3 percent pay raise, require workers to contribute a larger share of their health care costs, and defer five days of pay, which would be collected when employees left their jobs.

Public Employees Federation President Kenneth Brynien, whose organization represents 53,000 white-collar workers, made it clear that the union would fight the proposal.

“Make no mistake, reopening our contract is not an option,” said Mr. Brynien, who accused the governor of making a decision “more based on ideology rather than the need to provide immediate savings.”

Union officials have argued that the state budget should be balanced by increasing taxes on the rich, spending less on outside consultants and tapping into the state’s $1.2 billion “rainy day” fund.

Labor probably can count on more sympathetic ears in the Legislature, but even there, Democratic leaders already are throwing around words like “sacrifice” when referring to employee contracts.

“[T]ackling a budget deficit of this magnitude will require that our state work force share in the sacrifices that will have to be made,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in response to the proposed budget.

Relations between labor and government are even less cordial in California, where two public-employee unions have sued Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to stop his executive order requiring all state workers to take two unpaid days off each month, starting in February.

“We don’t think he has the authority,” said Bruce Blanning, executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government, at the time.

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