Democratic governors try to enlist labor's help in dealing with budget crises

Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly abruptly passed a measure that would strip collective bargaining rights from most public workers. The vote ended three straight days of punishing debate, but the political firestorm is far from over. (Feb. 25)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 25, 2011; 9:47 AM

In contrast to Wisconsin's Republican governor, who has targeted public-worker unions as the chief villain of his state's budget-cutting drama, Democratic governors across the country who face similar fiscal challenges have tried to sidestep such confrontations with a key constituency by quietly cutting deals with labor leaders.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed largely sparing schools and prisons from the deeper cuts hitting other areas as he tries to close the state's $25 billion deficit, and powerful unions representing teachers and corrections officers that poured millions into helping elect Brown last year are now lining up behind his budget plan.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has angered public-sector unions by calling for deep reductions in benefits, has worked closely with some labor officials on proposed cutbacks and is promising more dialogue in the coming days.

And while Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently proposed deep cuts to Medicaid, human services and education and even called for closing a state prison, he has vowed to retain an agreement giving workers limited bargaining rights and has invited employees to submit ideas for cutting waste and inefficiencies.

"I'm not saying the unions are happy about this," said Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has angered public-worker advocates by his push to overhaul state pensions as he tries to cut billions from the budget this year. "But it's not like we're locking each other out of the statehouse or stopped talking with each other."

O'Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, will welcome a number of his counterparts from around the nation to Washington for a weekend meeting, starting Friday, at which budget-cutting strategies are expected to be a hot topic. He described his party's approach with the unions as "fundamentally pragmatic," adding that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and other Republican leaders have embarked on an "ideological drive to go after the unions, to destroy the unions."

Walker's plan to roll back collective-bargaining rights for many public workers has sparked mass protests and a legislative standoff. It has also suddenly made him a hero to many conservatives who see public-sector unions as major funders of Democratic campaigns and fierce defenders of pension systems that have helped drain state coffers.

Walker has said that his sole motive is to regain control of Wisconsin's budget and that unions' collective-bargaining powers unduly constrain state and local governments. The governor's plan "is about avoiding massive layoffs and balancing this and future budgets," said spokesman Chris Schrimpf. "That's what he was elected to do."

The decision by Walker and some other new Republican governors, such as Ohio's John Kasich, to take on public-worker unions carries some risk. For example, their efforts have mobilized liberal activists in two states likely to be critical battlegrounds in President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign.

But Democrats from Obama to city mayors face a larger political challenge: how to satisfy the public pressure - and in some cases, legal obligation - to balance budgets through spending cuts without antagonizing or alienating some of their most loyal electoral and financial supporters.

The White House has tried to find the right balance. Obama last week called Walker's plan an "assault" on unions, and the president's political organization helped instigate demonstrations in Madison, Wis., and other state capitals. But Obama and his aides have also emphasized his support for less federal spending, including a pay freeze for federal workers.

The tension is palpable even in some deeply Democratic cities and states, where unions and politicians have enjoyed fruitful alliances for years. Now voter anxiety over government deficits is putting more distance between the two groups.

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