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C. Fraser Smith: State of the unions

ANNAPOLIS — They were in full campaign mode outside the State House Tuesday, arguing that the end is near — the end of a world built brick by brick by unions.

The heart of that world, they say, is collective bargaining rights — rights respected internationally but now threatened in the United States.

What’s happening across the nation is an attack on one of the few remaining segments of the nation in which wages and benefits are discussed by employers and worker representatives.

One Democrat speaking at the rally Tuesday said turning back this effort is the most important issue of the year or the decade.

Speakers were quick to point out that the Wisconsin public employee unions had conceded on budget-balancing issues, surrendering 8 percent of their wages without bargaining.

It was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to withdraw collective bargaining rights that led workers to lay siege to the state capitol in Madison.

‘It’s about power’

In Maryland, many members of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly stood with government workers on Lawyer’s Mall outside the State House on Tuesday. Unions have been important campaigners for Democrats.

This time it was the unions that needed support.

“This is about democracy,” said Patrick Moran, director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Maryland. “This is about people having a say in their workplace … and being able to shape their economic future. This is not about money for the folks in Wisconsin at all. I mean, they’ve said they’re willing to come to the table and work it out. This is about destroying people’s voice, their democratic voice in the workplace. That what it’s all about.”

The “this” Moran was talking about is the struggle — which may be becoming a nationwide struggle — to maintain hard-won bargaining rights for government workers.

The rhetoric may seem overheated to some. But its significance is profound. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller put it this way:

“It’s about power. And what it is it’s a struggle about workers’ rights and the power of a conservative, right-wing governor. We’ve got to stand firm with the working people of Wisconsin.”

Miller was reading the minds of the demonstrators and many who would speak after him. They fear a contagion of anti-union action in state capitols where similar assaults on unions are underway.

“ … If it happens in Wisconsin, it spreads to Ohio, it spreads to Pennsylvania, it spreads to New Jersey, and too many people have sacrificed their lives and their families for their brothers and sisters,” he said.

‘Cold dead’ hands

There were similar demonstrations in state capitols around the nation Tuesday.

The questions were these: Had Wisconsin’s governor become a weakened labor movement’s best organizer? Would a cadre of Republican governors manage to eviscerate public employees’ unions and make them the culprit in the lingering economic recession? Or would these leaders overplay their hands, giving unions a chance to regain some of the power they’ve lost in recent years?

AFSCME’s Moran said he hopes it will be an awakening for Americans who are famously supportive of fair play. Enough power, he said, has been shifted to the corporations and other wealthy enemies of the worker.

On Tuesday, Maryland unionists said they — and their brothers and sisters in Wisconsin — had recognized the lamentable condition of government checkbooks decimated by the recession.

AFSCME’s lobbyist in Annapolis, Sue Esty, said unions understood the plight of government and sacrificed to help balance the books.

“The [Wisconsin] governor’s not just refusing to bargain. He’s taking away the table and throwing in the dump,” she said.

What Miller and Esty said was no overstatement for rank-and-file members.

Tami Metz, who works for the Department of Social Services in Baltimore, said bargaining rights are as important for union members as gun rights are for some conservatives.

“ … We’re not willing to negotiate on this, on our collective bargaining rights. It’s the one thing we’re not about to give up,” she said.

She wore a Dr. Seuss-inspired top hat in bright red, white and blue. Bargaining rights, her placard said, would have to be ripped out of her “cold dead” hands.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.