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Fiscal discipline or the end of unions?

By Carol Costello, CNN
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Battle for union power
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Protesters are taking on Republican governors in Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin
  • Governors are going after unions to to control state budget shortfalls
  • AFL-CIO, SEIU and Teamsters have banded together and are targeting those states

Washington (CNN) -- For many in labor unions, the political battles in Wisconsin, Ohio and now Indiana are seen as nothing short of a frontal assault on their very existence.

But what's happening in those states and elsewhere -- a push by Republican governors to control state budget shortfalls by going after union pensions, wages and benefits -- may have, instead, energized union supporters and polarized public opinion in favor of the labor movement.

A USA Today/Gallup poll shows that 61 percent of Americans oppose eliminating or restricting collective bargaining rights for public employee unions.

Governors in Indiana and Ohio are following the lead of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in his attempt to limit the power of public employee unions in his state.

"There has been a coordinated campaign for the last 30 years to undermine the American middle class by weakening the power of workers to collectively bargain to raise their wages," said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents nearly 2 million workers, many of them public employees.

She contends that corporate America, in an effort to keep middle-class wages in check, doled out hundreds of millions of dollars to support Republicans running for statewide offices.

"We don't think that retirement security is wrong," Henry said. "What's really wrong is that 50 percent of us don't have access to it and that corporate CEOs earn 400 times what the average American worker earns."

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According to followthemoney.org, a nonpartisan organization that tracks state campaign contributions, organized business interests -- including real estate, transportation, construction and lobbying groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- donated $878 million to gubernatorial and other state candidates across the country during the 2009-10 election cycle. That includes more than $21 million to the campaigns of Wisconsin's Walker and Ohio's Gov. John Kasich.

Organized labor, on the other hand, donated far less to state campaigns: $225 million, according to the nonprofit organization.

But Walker said Tuesday that his moves are not about going after unions.

"Despite a lot of the rhetoric we've heard over the past 11 days, the bill I put forward isn't aimed at state workers, and it certainly isn't a battle with unions," he said.

Still, the looming threat has forced labor to focus their energies. The AFL-CIO, the SEIU and the Teamsters have put their differing agendas aside and have banded together, busing thousands of protesters to Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana and speaking with one voice in campaigns online. Teamsters President Jim Hoffa arrived in Madison on Wednesday to support the unions' efforts.

They have also gotten some organizational support from Democratic groups such as Obama's Organizing for America. And labor supporters from as far away as Egypt have been sending money and even pizza to Madison help the protesters.

Meanwhile, Democratic state lawmakers in Indiana, mimicking their Wisconsin brothers and sisters, failed to show up at a House hearing Tuesday, effectively blocking a Republican-supported bill that would reduce private-sector union rights. They are reportedly holed up across the state border in Illinois.

Republicans who are pushing those kinds of bills are playing hardball. Walker threatened that if Democrats don't return to the statehouse by Friday, he'll lay off as many as 1,500 public employees. Other Republican lawmakers are blaming the unions' selfishness for further damaging fragile states' economies.

"We only need to look at Camden, New Jersey," said Ohio state Sen. Shannon Jones, who is behind that state's anti-union legislation. "It's an example of where the union refused to renegotiate, and now that city is suffering a 45 percent reduction in the size of its police force because management had no choice."

In January, Camden Mayor Dana Redd cut the city's police force nearly in half, citing budget shortfalls. She said she had no choice because she was unable to secure the $8 million in budget concessions she needed to save jobs.

Jones also contended that going after union costs is one way to tackle the tough budget decisions lawmakers face.

"We've got a projected $8-plus billion budget deficit that we have to deal with," she said. "And we're not like Washington. We can't just print more money and pawn it off on our children. We've got to balance these budgets."

 
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