Oregon, Wis. — Michael Wernick, 61, a longtime body and fender man, says his financial fortunes have gone nowhere but down over the past decade. His salary is stagnant, and his 401(k) has shrunk, derailing his retirement plans.
So as he watches Gov. Scott Walker (R) take on the public-employee unions by not only demanding steep reductions in their pension and health care benefits but by also insisting they give up many of their collective-bargaining rights, Wernick is quietly cheering him on.
“Maybe there is a little bit of jealousy here, but public workers have what I don’t have,” Wernick, a political independent, said as he sipped coffee in this bucolic village a few miles outside of Madison. “It’s nice to have these things, but if there is no money you can’t afford them.”
It is a view that Walker and the other Republican governors who have staked their political futures on challenging public-sector unions are convinced is widespread.
With many working Americans financially battered by the recession and the years of economic uncertainty that preceded it, those leaders are aiming to be seen as friends of the middle class even as they challenge workers who themselves are middle class.
Their success may ultimately hinge on whether voters see public employees as another privileged special interest or whether they sympathize with the workers standing up for their rights. In Madison, tens of thousands converged on the state Capitol on Saturday for the latest in a series of protests against Walker’s initiatives. Smaller demonstrations were held at other statehouses across the country, including several that brought thousands of protesters to the District, Annapolis and Richmond.
Interviews with families who live in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana show many voters seem to like the idea of targeting fat pensions but are leery of taking away collective-bargaining rights. Their views demonstrate just how tricky it will be for politicians to calibrate their message in the newly charged political environment in these states.
Doug Austin, 60, a factory worker who wears a brace on his arthritic left knee, said he is of two minds as he follows the events unfolding at the Wisconsin Capitol.
“It seems like government workers should have to pay for more of their benefits,” he said, as he watched his grandson’s hockey practice in Oregon.
Austin said he pays a significant amount of money for health care, particularly the drugs his wife takes to control her muscular dystrophy. It is only right, he said, for public employees to pay more themselves.
Yet, he added, he wonders whether Walker is going too far by demanding that public employees surrender many of their collective-bargaining rights.
“Maybe he is going a little bit overboard,” Austin said.
Republicans are gambling that the nation’s economic circumstances have put them in a position to achieve fiscal solvency while diminishing the power of unions, a crucial part of the Democratic base that provides everything from ground-level activists to campaign contributions.
But the effort carries risk, especially in appealing to the swing voters whose support can be decisive in elections, particularly in hotly contested Midwestern states crucial to both parties’ presidential hopes.
The fight has polarized politics in a part of the country where national candidates often find success by appealing to the middle.
Independents shifted away from the Democrats in 2010 in no small part because of the perception that the party overreached, pursuing the health-care overhaul instead of focusing on jobs and the economy.
Republicans could suffer the same fate if these crucial voters — who tend to be more sensitive to things such as tone and personality than other voters, pollsters say — come to the same conclusion about the new GOP majorities that now control many statehouses.
Voters who are otherwise uninvolved with public unions nonetheless have been affected by closed schools and by the troubling spectacle of their capitol being occupied by thousands of chanting protesters.
Walker has tried to persuade Wisconsin voters and the American public that his actions are aimed solely at fixing the state’s finances. But it remains to be seen if that message has gotten through.
Some people just want Walker to compromise, which the governor says he is unwilling to do, even as unions have offered up concessions that would close the state’s budget gap.
“It feels like Walker is trying to go too far too fast,” said Mike Baker, a married father of one, who lives in Brooklyn, a town adjacent to Oregon. “He is trying to do too much.” His wife, Sara, added: “The big issue here is people losing their rights to collective bargaining. That’s not good.”
“We’re lucky to have a job. Public workers are lucky to have a job,” said Brooklyn resident Trisha Ciochon, a legal assistant and a mother of two, as she enjoyed breakfast with her husband. “Collective bargaining is a tough thing to give up. I think the governor is really pushing it.”
A Gallup/USA Today poll taken at the height of the standoff found that 61 percent of Americans and a majority of independents do not favor eliminating collective bargaining for state employees in their own states.
And yet Republican governors are taking on the unions at a time when public opinion of organized labor is at a low point. About 45 percent of Americans have a positive view of unions, according to a recent Pew poll — close to the lowest level in a quarter of a century.
Moreover, the economic downturn has dragged on for so long that the governors are calculating that voters are willing to stomach actions in the name of fiscal austerity that they previously considered unthinkable.
“The scale of the numbers that are being talked about — the $3.6 billion deficit in Wisconsin and so forth — people find that scary. And as a result of that, they are beginning to show some movement on issues they may not have previously,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster.
In Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich is an avid supporter of a bill that would limit collective bargaining, block strikes and curtail binding arbitration for public employees, it was clear that both sides were seeking to appeal to independent-minded voters concerned about shoring up a shaky economy.
“What I said in the campaign is, we’ve got to get jobs back in Ohio,” said Kasich, whose staff noted that the state has lost 400,000 jobs over the past four years. “We’ve lost more jobs than every state in the country except Michigan and California.”
In Indianapolis, scene of another legislative standoff over union rights, some voters interviewed Saturday urged a reasoned debate.
David Stevens, 44, a database analyst, said he is upset that Indiana House Democrats left the state to prevent action on Republican bills affecting unions and education. Stevens described himself as a generally Republican voter with sympathy for unions.
“People should have the right to form a union, gather together, negotiate,” he said. “Taking that away is not right. There’s a balance. There should be some compromise, and we don’t play these power games.”
Locally, the cost of employee medical and retirement benefits has jumped by more than 120 percent over the past decade in Montgomery County. The county is facing a long-term unfunded pension liability of $854 million in addition to a $300 million budget deficit this year.
Retired sales manager Nancy Gaynor, a Democrat, went to school in the Midwest and thinks some of the government spending she has seen in Montgomery has been mind-boggling. “I think it’s fine to say, ‘Okay, we can’t afford to be as generous as we have been in the past,’ ” she said. But Gaynor, 74, added that Wisconsin’s governor is going too far.
“To be able to negotiate, I think that’s an American privilege and right,” she said.
Staff writers Nick Anderson in Indianapolis, Amy Gardner in Columbus and Michael Laris contributed to this report.