Iowa, Minnesota see spillover from Wisconsin’s union battles

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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa | Since Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ignited a nation-gripping battle with his law eliminating most collective-bargaining rights for public employees, anti-union pressure has spread even to neighboring states where the political stars aren’t so perfectly aligned.

Wisconsin’s western neighbors - Minnesota and Iowa - are both seeing similar actions hitting their legislatures, and political observers here predict further political fighting over union power, into the 2012 election cycle.

“You have states with a strong union presence, youve had a lot of registered Democrats, the number of Democrats in office has been fairly high. But now youre starting to see Republicans make some inroads, in these more traditional Democratic states,” said Christopher Larimer, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa who teaches courses on state politics, about a recent surge of anti-union legislation in Wisconsin’s neighbors.

Recently, Minnesota public-employee unions protested a number of bills being introduced in the state House, specifically one that would freeze salaries and slash the state workforce, though leaving collective bargaining intact.

However, Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat who narrowly won a three-candidate contest, has pledged to block any efforts to curtail collective bargaining for state employees.

“Thats an earned right over the last century in this country, and for somebody just to unilaterally take that away, just to steal it away from people is simply not going to happen in Minnesota,” said Mr. Dayton, who has proposed a tax increase on high-income Minnesotans to help close the states $6.2 billion budget shortfall.

In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican who ousted his Democratic predecessor in the last election, signaled his intent to clash with state-employee unions on some issues, making the same point Mr. Walker has - that some trimming of benefits will be necessary to prevent layoffs.

“I think we should appeal to their (unions) fairness and equality in doing whats right and come back and work something out thats more reasonable that wont result in the level of layoffs that were looking at,” Mr. Branstad said.

Mr. Branstad has said that although he supports removing insurance benefits as an item the state must negotiate with workers, he does not intend to remove collective bargaining for other benefits, such as pensions.

The Republican-controlled state House passed a bill that would curb state employee unions bargaining rights on health benefits retirement, and layoffs, but it quickly died in the Democrat-led state Senate, where there were not enough votes to get out of committee.

The three states share a number of factors that render them political cousins; all are around 90 percent white - heavily German and Scandinavian - with political cultures that include a mixture of both progressivism and religious conservatism.

All three tend to vote Democratic in presidential and national elections, though both saw Republican upswings during the last election, and two (Iowa and Wisconsin) have a Republican governor. All three states have a reputation for upright, “good government” politics and an aversion to urban-style political machines, a tendency seen in purest form in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.

“The history of the unions started in the Midwest, so I think theres always been that tension there,” said Mr. Larimer, elaborating that while Democratic strength in Iowa and Minnesota prevents the bills from becoming law soon, the fight is far from over and could spill into 2012 politicking.

“Their best means [of retaliation] would just be mobilizing voters for 2012,” Mr. Larimer said of the region’s unions. Unions could “try to make the point that this is what happens when you have Republicans in control, that they take away collective-bargaining rights. But it could be a tough sell if its 2012 and the economy has improved.”

“Its probably going to be a pretty good political shootout in most of these states, a pretty good political battle,” he predicted.

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