WASHINGTON – Union leaders plan to launch a multimillion dollar campaign to boost the image of government workers and fend off pay cuts and benefit rollbacks in states under fiscal siege.
The scope of the effort is unusual in a non-election year, and it signals a growing concern that unions could lose significant clout in states where the political climate has changed with Republicans in control in many legislatures.
"It's a pretty unprecedented attack on public sector workers and workers in all industries," said Naomi Walker, director of state government relations at the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation.
Cash-strapped states from New York to California want to freeze wages or cut pension benefits of public employees to help balance budgets. At least 16 states are expected to consider legislation that would take away the right of unions to use payroll deductions for political purposes. And 10 other states may take up "right to work" bills that would prevent workers from being required to join or pay dues to a union.
Walker said unions plan to get their message out with phone banks, public rallies, and stepped-up lobbying efforts in at least a dozen state legislatures.
The action was set to kick off in Ohio on Friday night. Hundreds of workers planned to hold a candlelight vigil in Cincinnati to protest Ohio Gov. John Kasich's plan to prohibit home health care and child care workers paid by the state from joining unions.
"These lawmakers are hiding behind the guise of fiscal austerity and budget cuts in order to move a conservative corporate agenda that seeks to weaken the power of workers to organize and bargain collectively for better wages and a better quality of life," said AFL-CIO spokeswoman Alison Omens.
Other states where unions plan to focus include those where organized labor traditionally has wielded power, such as Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
It's a matter of survival for unions, which have seen their ranks sink to historic lows over the past two decades. The goal is to galvanize workers at the local level and get them more involved in talking to lawmakers and making the case for unions.
A major concern is getting union locals to become more sophisticated and aggressive in lobbying on state issues. It's hard for the national offices of unions to have the resources to parachute into states and get up to speed on local referenda or legislative issues.
The effort is being coordinated by the AFL-CIO along with other large unions, including the politically powerful Service Employees International Union and the National Education Association.
The SEIU is also planning its own strategy to counter the Tea Party movement and push the argument that labor unions and the federal government should be viewed as part of the solution to the nation's economic problems.
An internal SEIU memo obtained by The Associated Press says the goal is to focus on 10-15 major cities where unions can bring massive resources to bear. The campaign would build to a peak in the summer of 2012 as the presidential election season goes into full swing.
"It's no secret there's a crisis here and labor's been put in a tough bind," said SEIU spokeswoman Inga Skippings. "We are looking at everything we can do to address this in a bigger way."
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