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Democrats must play labor issue right

More than 30 years ago, I and a boisterous contingent of fellow journalists steadied ourselves on a moving flatbed truck and tossed small bags of roasted peanuts to people on the streets of downtown Birmingham, Ala.

"The Post-Herald pays us peanuts!" we yelled, seeking sympathy for our lack of a union contract. Alabama may be a right-to-work state, but back then, Birmingham, with its mining and steel jobs, was a union town. We eventually got our contract.

It was my first union protest, and the almost-festive occasion stands in stark contrast to the sobering seven-week newspaper strike I later participated in as a union member in Philadelphia.

Why do I bring up ancient history? Only to acknowledge my empathy for today's members of public-sector unions, who are being targeted by overzealous governors using budget deficits as an excuse to emasculate organized labor.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wasn't satisfied when state workers finally agreed to contribute more for their health and pension benefits. He and the Republican-controlled Legislature stripped state employees of most collective-bargaining rights. Similar measures are being considered in Iowa and Ohio.

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Closer to home, Gov. Chris Christie has been in a pitched battle with New Jersey's teachers' union almost since his inauguration. It hasn't been enough for him to point out the fat in their contracts; he has questioned teachers' dedication, ignoring the fact that New Jersey schools, for the most part, are some of the best in the nation.

Public-employee unions are vulnerable to such attacks because they have done so much better than their private-sector counterparts in recent years, negotiating lucrative benefits packages, raises, and the ability to retire early with medical coverage.

Those of us who labor for nongovernment bosses look on with envy when government workers aren't asked for co-pays in our doctors' offices. We marvel at public employees who got recession-proof raises when we were taking pay cuts and furloughs. Sure, some government workers suffered cuts and furloughs, too, but not as many, it seemed.

Our jealousy of government workers is being mined by Republicans who see an opportunity to weaken unions, which traditionally favor Democratic candidates.

GOP politicians want people to see the public-sector unions as "greedy," to use Christie's label. But many private-sector union members also think their government peers' benefits should be dialed back in this economy.

In fact, New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, an ironworkers' union chief, said he agreed with Christie that state workers should start paying 30 percent of their health-insurance premiums. But Sweeney would require only those workers earning $100,000 or more to contribute that much. He would establish a scale in which a worker making $30,000 or less a year would initially pay 2 percent of his health premiums, one earning $60,000 would pay 7 percent, and there would be annual increases thereafter.

That certainly sounds reasonable to nongovernment workers like me, many of whom would have bigger paychecks if our share of insurance premiums were that low. But the New Jersey Education Association called it a "bad idea."

Wrong response! That feeds the rhetoric of Republican governors who want to portray the unions as unyielding. NJEA leaders should take a cue from Pennsylvania State Education Association president James P. Testerman, who says he agrees with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett that that state's teachers should consider a one-year pay freeze.

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The Republican governors believe most Americans support their view that the public-sector unions are living too high on the hog. But I think the Republican calculation is off. Judging by the thousands of people who have been attending rallies in support of Wisconsin's public employees, the GOP should be worried that it has awakened a sleeping giant.

Up to 100,000 people rallied at the State Capitol in Madison this month to protest Walker's treatment of state workers. They cheered the 14 Democratic state senators who fled the state in an unsuccessful bid to keep the Legislature from gutting state workers' collective-bargaining rights. There were related rallies in Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and other states. AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka says Walker should be given a "Mobilizer of the Year" award for energizing America's unions.

"Just 30 days ago, who would have imagined that today we would have a historic opportunity to seize the national debate, to move the policy and economic conversation in America from deficit hysteria to where it belongs — to jobs and the right to build middle-class living standards?" Trumka said. "This struggle erupted over collective bargaining, but we know even more is at stake. It's immigrant rights, it's safety on the job, it's education, it's health care, it's retirement security, it's a chance at a decent life, and it's the American dream that all of us deserve."

Those words must be music to the ears of Democrats, who do stand to benefit at the polls if overreaching by Republican politicians comes back to bite them in the form of a more potent labor movement.

But the unions have to be careful, too. If government workers don't acknowledge their states' financial realities and agree to reasonable concessions such as the one proposed by Sweeney, all this new public support for organized labor will quickly diminish.

The GOP has set the table for a resurgence of America's labor unions. Now let's see if the unions can take advantage of it.

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