GOP governors gambling on challenge to public-employee unions

Demonstrators at the Capitol building in Madison are protesting Republican Gov. Scott Walker's legislation to cut public employees' benefits and eliminate most of their collective bargaining rights.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 12:00 AM

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.

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