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GOP Governors Cut State Workers' Rights


By ROBERT TANNER, AP National Writer

Republican governors in a few spots across the country are angering state
employees by removing one of organized labor's strongest tools ― the right
to collective bargaining.
 
Governors in three states who've taken the step say it's about making
government more efficient or being fair to non-union workers. Critics say
it's political payback for labor's traditional support of Democrats and part
of a wider shift to undermine workers in favor of big business.

Within hours or days of taking office this year, Mitch Daniels in Indiana
and Matt Blunt in Missouri eliminated collective bargaining agreements for
state employees, affecting about 50,000 workers. Kentucky Gov. Ernie
Fletcher did the same when he took office in 2003. In each case, the
agreements had only been granted by executive order, not by law.

In Mississippi, where state employees don't have collective bargaining
rights, GOP Gov. Haley Barbour supports a legislative effort to eliminate
existing civil-service protections. In Oklahoma, the GOP-controlled state
House approved a measure to repeal a law granting collective bargaining to
municipal employees.

Blunt said the union rules of the business world should not apply to
government. "Fundamentally, public employees are different than private
sector employees ― their employer is the people of Missouri," he said on his
first day in office. "Taxpayers should not be bound by collective bargaining
agreements."

Union leaders see the actions as concerted effort among new, more
conservative leaders, and tie it to President Bush (news - web sites), whose
administration exempted some employees from collective bargaining at the
Homeland Security Department.

"It's unconscionable. This is about the very soul of our movement,"
said Andy Levin of the AFL-CIO, who said his group will fight the governors'
efforts. "Collective bargaining is how we built the middle class in this
country."

Spokesmen for the governors all dismissed any notion that they had acted
together, pointing out that each had their own motivation. None of the
governors responded to requests for interviews.

In Missouri, Blunt had fought the unions for years as secretary of state,
particularly over bargaining fees charged to state employees who aren't
union members, and vowed during the campaign to rescind a 2001 executive
order that allowed collective bargaining.

Fletcher spokeswoman Jeanne Lausche in Kentucky said the governor had
promised to streamline state government and "ensure that tax dollars are
expended in a business-like manner." Daniels said his decision would allow
him to more swiftly improve government services.

After he eliminated collective bargaining, he immediately created a
separate, cabinet-level agency to oversee child protection services, a step
he said would have been slowed by union negotiations.

The governors' actions come amid a round of soul-searching and turmoil for
the nation's labor movement, which has been watching union membership slide
in the past few decades, down to 12.5 percent of wage and salary workers in
2004.

Representation among government workers remains labors' strongest base, at
36 percent. Private industry alone is at 7.9 percent, according to the Labor
Department (news - web sites).

The ability to negotiate with employers with the strength that comes from a
united group is the basic tool of unions. But comprehensive bargaining ―
defined as the ability to bargain over wages, benefits and work conditions ―
is only allowed in 25 states, according to the AFL-CIO.

The fight is often a seesaw. In New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson
signed a law in 2003 giving bargaining rights to public workers, after years
of opposition from former Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican.

The GOP strategy aims to weaken a foundation of the Democratic party, said
Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and
Municipal Employees union, with 1.5 million members. "I see this as an
effort to make the Republican right-wing conservatives the party of the
future for a long, long time."

He worried about other efforts by Republican governors that weigh heavily on
government workers ― Arnold Schwarzenneger's struggle in California over
pensions for state workers and Robert Ehrlich's proposal in Maryland to
raise state employees' health care costs.

Yet there's no denying that unions have traditionally been more supportive
of Democrats than Republicans, said Robert Bruno, an associate professor of
labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"It's an easy way to make enemies," he said.