Reporting from Sacramento — Framing the union battles taking place across the nation as a fundamental attack on working Americans, Democratic leaders on Saturday accused Republicans of scapegoating public employees for political gain.
"They are intent on dismantling the very economic ladder that lifted our middle class and made California the richest and greatest state in the greatest nation in the world," Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris told thousands of delegates and supporters gathered at the Democrats' annual convention in Sacramento.
As cities, counties and states struggle to balance budgets, public employee unions have come under fire from critics arguing that their benefits, especially their pensions, are overly generous. Some of the most notable battles are in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker sought to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers, and Ohio, where an anti-union measure is the subject of a proposed voter referendum.
Several speakers tied the Wisconsin controversy to Costa Mesa. A budget shortfall in the Orange County city led officials to issue layoff notices to much of its workforce and to push to privatize many city services.
Orange County Employees Assn. General Manager Nick Berardino described Costa Mesa as "ground zero for working men and women in California" and said the actions there "represent a direct threat to the Democratic Party and democracy itself."
He said Republicans are seeking to reduce union power, diminishing their ability to help elect Democrats. Even reduced from their historic strength, unions remain a bulwark of the party, key to gaining both money and foot soldiers.
"We are all under attack," he said. "The enemies of working-class Americans are at our gate."
Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, called on delegates to show their support for embattled workers.
"We now declare for the workers in Wisconsin and the workers in Costa Mesa that we are one," he said. "We are one. We are one."
Unions were also the focus of a protest at the convention, but not by Democrats. Dozens of Republican college students marched through the gathering Saturday and chanted, "No new taxes, reform pensions now!"
Waving signs that read "Put it on my tab. I'll send it to my kids" and "Lower taxes=More jobs," the protesters confronted delegates gathered at the convention center in Sacramento.
Democrats responded by booing and chanting, "Tax the rich!"