Republicans who swept into power in state capitols this year with promises to cut spending and bolster the business climate now are beginning to usher in a new era of labor relations that could result in the largest reduction of power in decades for public employee unions.
But as massive public protests and legislative boycotts in Wisconsin this week have shown, the Republican charge can be fraught with risk and unpredictable turns as politicians try to transform campaign ideas into action.
The question GOP governors and lawmakers are now facing is exactly how far they can go without encountering a backlash. Do they merely extract more money from school teachers, prison guards and office workers to help ease their states' budget problems? Or do they go at the very core of union power by abolishing the workers' right to bargain collectively? Do they try to impose changes by steamrolling the opposition, or by coming to the bargaining table?
"The consequences will be rolling forth for many, many years," said James Gregory, director of Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington. "The battle lines have been drawn and will be replicated around the country. This is going to be very tough for unions and public sector employees."
In Wisconsin, new Republican Gov. Scott Walker is going for it all — the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public employees plus sharp increases in their health care and pension payments. His plan advanced quickly to the Republican-led Senate, despite several days of protests that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators to the Capitol. Then Senate Democrats suddenly fled the state Thursday, bringing the legislative process to a halt.
Wisconsin was the first battleground. But it is unlikely to be the last.
A similar proposal to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights drew throngs of protesters Thursday at the Ohio Capitol. Hundreds more have demonstrated in Tennessee and Indiana, where Republican-led committees have advanced bills to restrict bargaining rights for teachers' unions. And governors from Nevada to Florida have been touting the need to weaken union powers and extract more money from government employees to help balance out-of-whack budgets.
The confrontation comes as organized labor is reeling from a steady loss of members in the private sector. The public sector, with about 7.6 million members, now account for the majority of workers on union rolls, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Among union leaders, a sense of crisis is growing. Labor is preparing to spend at least $30 million to fight anti-union legislation in dozens of states, according to internal budget numbers reviewed by The Associated Press. They're lobbying local officials, organizing public rallies, working phone banks and buying television and newspaper ads in a desperate attempt to swing public opinion.
"Plans are being put into place to silence workers, lower their wages, cut their benefits and increase the likelihood that they will suffer injuries and fatalities at work," said Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "It is happening at a breakneck pace and too little attention is being paid."
Labor plans to spend large amounts of money on battles in Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri, New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Unions see their goal as not just playing defense — as opponents chip away at bargaining rights — but going on offense to try to educate the public about the role of unions.
But last fall's midterm elections, which brought the defeat of many union-supported candidates and victories by pro-business Republican adversaries, show the difficulty the unions face in a climate shaped by the sour economy. In many states, Republican governors have blamed unions in part for the state budget crisis by negotiating flush benefit packages for public workers that have forced states to slash aid to schools, social services and important services.
Wisconsin's legislation, for example, not only would eliminate collective bargaining rights but also force public workers to pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage — increases the governor calls "modest" compared with those in the private sector. It's projected to save $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, citing an estimated $8 billion budget gap, wants to restrict union rights for state workers and in townships, cities, counties, school districts and publicly funded universities. The legislation would generally eliminate salary schedules.
Kasich drew support Thursday from local tea party leader Ted Lyons, an electronics executive from Troy, Ohio, who said the proposed union changes are long overdue. "The labor unions have become so powerful now on a worldwide basis," Lyons said. "It's beyond just the benefits of the membership, it's about all the spending."
Lyons' voice was nearly drowned out by a crowd of protesters.
But some other Republicans are intentionally avoiding the sorts of confrontations that have sparked demonstrations.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the former chief operating officer of computer manufacturer Gateway Inc., won election last November on a similar pro-business agenda and also wants savings from public employee costs. But he's not seeking to abolish collective bargaining rights and has publicly denounced legislative efforts to strike at union membership and fees.
Snyder wants all government employees to pay 20 percent of their health care premiums. But he's not ramming the change at unions, and went out of his way Thursday to highlight his desire to work with them.
"As a practical matter, we're asking for $180 million in concessions, and we know we need to go bargain for that," Snyder told reporters Thursday after delivering his 2011-12 budget proposal. "We want to do that thoughtfully in partnership with our employees. We're not here to create threats."
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