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Ohio, Wisconsin shine spotlight on new union battle: Government workers vs. taxpayers

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.

Many public-sector unions won compensation increases during the booming 1990s. These days, with the tea party movement and broader anti-tax sentiment, those pay packages have come under attack.

State and local workers earn about 4 percent less in wages than similarly educated workers at private companies, according to a study by John Schmitt at the Center for Economic and Policy Research that echoes other findings. But researchers' conclusions about benefits for government workers, who often receive better health-care and retirement help than their counterparts at private companies, are unclear.

Union supporters assert that lower pay for government workers shows that they are not demanding too much.

"There are constraints on government worker pay, and they are working," said Bill Raabe, director of collective bargaining and member advocacy for the National Education Association, one of the nation's largest unions.

Raabe also cautioned against blaming the government workers for state budget shortfalls, which he said were largely caused by a recession precipitated in part by the excesses of Wall Street.

"Our members didn't create this dilemma in the state budgets," Raabe said. "These are people making $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 who are being asked to bear the brunt of serious mistakes made by million- and billionaires."

Public opinion

So far, some recent polls have shown the public leaning in favor of government workers having collective-bargaining rights and maintaining the essence of a union.

A USA Today/Gallup poll found, for example, that 61 percent of Americans are opposed to a bill that would take away some collective-bargaining rights of public unions. And a poll in Wisconsin by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that 74 percent of voters opposed removing state workers' collective-bargaining rights, as long as they agree to cover more for their health care and pensions. Research by the Pew Research Center similarly found virtually no difference in opinions about private- and public-sector unions.

Jake Jones, 36, a firefighter for 13 years at the Columbus firehouse, echoing many of those polled, said last week that giving up concessions is fine but giving up collective bargaining is unacceptable.

"We've already agreed to concessions," he said. "We've actually taken pay freezes and reductions previous to this to keep from getting laid off. But it seems like that's not enough for our current governor and other governors across the country."

Gardner reported from Columbus and Whoriskey from Washington.

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