Unions at crossroads in states’ budget wars

Public employees are taking big hits

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The same process is starting to happen in the public sector, but unions representing government and public-sector workers are well aware that they face the battle of their lives and are pulling out all the stops to defend their pay and perks.

Union leaders portray the battle as a last stand to protect America’s middle class, which they say has shrunk as a result of the forces of globalization in the private sector and is now under attack from wealthy conservatives who sponsor their Republican opponents.

“Corporate-backed politicians are clearly gunning for working people in every state,” said Alison Omens, media director at the AFL-CIO, the parent of AFSCME, the leading state and local employee union.

She said the highly publicized battle in Wisconsin, where Republican legislators this month passed legislation by Gov. Scott Walker that repeals unions’ collective-bargaining rights over pensions and benefits despite a walkout by Democratic legislators, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Laws curtailing the rights and compensation of public employees or calling for privatization of public services have been introduced as well in Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah, she said.

School teachers and administrators are facing cutbacks inAlabama, Florida, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, and “right-to-work” bills, which prohibit compulsory unionization, have been introduced in more than a dozen states, including Maine, Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Tennessee and Indiana, she said.

Unions insist that the public sides with them in the battle, especially on maintaining the right to bargain collectively. But public opinion polls have been mixed, with many Americans saying they support cuts in union perks over cuts in services for taxpayers.

Ms. Omens compared today’s struggle to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“Even in states where the outcry has not been as publicized as Wisconsin, working families have stepped up to express their dismay to lawmakers who would rather play partisan games and tip the scales against the middle class than create jobs,” she said.

Fighting back

The unions have been sponsoring protests and rallies in the battleground states and are planning a big national protest April 4.

As with the private unions that have lost power at the negotiating table, the public unions are turning increasingly to political tactics to try to preserve their gains. They are sponsoring recall petitions, for example, for the GOP politicians in Wisconsin who voted to cut their benefits.

But the overtly political tactics of the unions has brought increased scrutiny and criticism of their use of compulsory member dues to finance their political activities.

The largest public-sector unions, which include the NEA, AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union, have more than 7 million members nationwide and collect more than $2 billion in dues, mostly through automatic deductions on employee paychecks.

The vast majority of the union funding goes to back Democratic candidates and causes. Besides devoting millions of dollars and man-hours to elect Mr. Obama and other Democrats, the unions help finance campaigns for ballot measures to raise taxes and maintain spending on public employees and programs. They fight outsourcing of public services, school choice and other conservative causes.

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