Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Labor Clashes Gain Momentum in Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Taking Wisconsin as an example, several states seeking to close budget gaps have put collective bargaining rights for public employees on the table. Some Governors have also proposed layoffs or the sale of prisons and other government holdings in order to make ends meet.
The unintended consequence of such measures is that public workers have been energized to protest what they call an "assault" on unions. With more budgets and pieces of union-related legislation making the rounds in state capitals this week, here's a look at three states where new standoffs could be on the horizon.
Yesterday, Ohio Governor John Kasich presented his budget plan for the state, which faces an $8 billion deficit this fiscal year. A month earlier, the Republican-controlled State Senate introduced Senate Bill 5, a proposal to limit collective bargaining rights for public employee unions. The scenario is all too familiar.
Bill 5 would institute a system of merit pay for public employees, limit the amount government employers can pay toward the cost of employee health benefit premiums, and prohibit collective bargaining for employee health care benefits. Most dramatically, the bill would bar state agencies and higher education institutions from bargaining collectively with employees, period.
Protests began as early as February 17th, when thousands of public workers took to the statehouse in Columbus. While receiving less attention than the Wisconsin standoff, the unrest in Ohio has been steady. Protests have even occurred outside of Columbus, with demonstrations reported in Strongsville and Akron just yesterday.
Senate Bill 5 has already passed the State Senate, and is expected to pass the Assembly soon. Unlike in Wisconsin, where activists have their eye on a recall election, Ohio's unions are preparing a petition to put Senate Bill 5 up for a public vote. A proposition to overturn the legislation that could appear on ballots this November.
Facing a budget shortfall of $1.58 billion, Michigan is following suit by targeting schools and public sector pensions. Governor Rick Snyder, also a Republican, offered a budget-balancing plan that includes legislation allowing "emergency financial managers" the power to toss out union contracts in the name of correcting municipal finances. That particular bill was approved by the GOP-led Michigan House on Tuesday.
While not the full-fledged overhaul of collective bargaining rights that's been proposed in other states, Michigan's budget bill includes the equally contentious proposal to tax public employee pensions like regular income. In light of Governor Snyder's concurrent plan give businesses a $1.8 billion tax break, unions and retirees are steaming. Eric Schneidewind, president of AARP Michigan, calls it "a tax shift on seniors that does nothing for their local communities."
Protests at the capitol in Lansing have ramped up over the last week, and are now building more momentum in response to yesterday's passage of the emergency financial managers legislation. Today, thousands are gathered at the capitol, with chants of "Recall Rick!" reported.
On Tuesday, seven people were arrested in Nashville for disrupting a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. Hundreds of demonstrators had gathered in opposition to a series of proposals that would limit teachers' right to bargain collectively and extend their tenure track by two years.
Republican Governor Bill Haslam has told reporters that he "wants to focus on changing key elements of teachers' collective bargaining rather than do away with it entirely." But the reaction from unions has been alarmist, for obvious reasons. With recent blows dealt in Wisconsin and the previously mentioned states, any move to change the way unions do business is regarded with fear and anger from public employees.
Protesters have been turning out for a few weeks now, but Governor Haslam only introduced his budget on Monday, which actually includes a 1.6 percent pay raise for teachers. Haslam's budget also calls for the elimination of nearly 1200 government jobs. Taking cues from the protracted standoff in Wisconsin, it appears that states interested in taking on public employees have learned to separate their budgets from specific legislation that affects unions.