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Obama, speaking out on Wisconsin labor standoff, says public employees should not lose rights

President Obama, addressing the National Governors Assn., says it does no good 'when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon.' In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker says if wayward Democrats don't return in 24 hours, the state will lose a chance to save $165 million.

February 28, 2011|By Michael Muskal | Los Angeles Times

President Obama on Monday waded into the labor standoff in Wisconsin and warned that the rights of public employees should not be infringed upon.

Speaking to the National Governors Assn., Obama noted that many states as well as the federal government face tough economic choices. But the president, who has been criticized by some labor allies for not speaking out more forcefully on the Wisconsin situation, noted the fight between Wisconsin's public unions and the Republican administration in Madison.

"I don't think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon," Obama said in televised remarks. "We need to attract the best and brightest to public service. These times demand it."

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has proposed increasing the amount of money that public employees would have to pay for healthcare and pension benefits. He has also sought to limit collective-bargaining rights for most public employees.

The plans, which have passed the Wisconsin Assembly, are stalled in the state Senate, whose 14 Democrats have fled to Illinois, making it impossible to have a quorum.

On Monday, Walker gave the Democrats 24 hours to return. He said if his proposals weren't passed, the state would be unable to finance part of its debt, leading to some layoffs.

"Now they have one day to return to work before the state loses out on the chance to refinance debt, saving taxpayers $165 million this fiscal year," Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie said in an statement. "Failure to return to work and cast their votes will lead to more painful and aggressive spending cuts in the very near future."

Initially, Obama had questioned Walker's proposal to curb collective bargaining. saying in a television interview that "generally seems like more of an assault on unions." Some Democratic allies had also urged Obama to make good on his campaign comments in 2007 that he would picket if workers were denied their right to organized and collectively bargain.

But the White House last week argued that Obama could speak forcefully on the issue without having to join the demonstrations, which have been going on for more than two weeks.

As he has in the past, Obama distinguished between the need to cut budgets and deficits and putting the onus on public employee unions to carry the financial load. Facing his own budget battles in the forthcoming weeks, Obama again called for shared sacrifice on the state and federal levels to achieve savings.

"I know many of you are making decisions regarding your public work forces and I know how difficult that can be," Obama told the governors. "I recently froze the salaries of federal employees for two years. It wasn't something I wanted to do, but I did it because of the very tough fiscal situation we are in. I believe that everybody should be prepared to give up something in order to solve our budget challenges. I think most public servants agree with that. Democrats and Republicans agree with that."

michael.muskal@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesmuskal

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