NEW YORK (AP) — Hundreds of demonstrators in New York and Albany rallied Saturday to support public employee unions, warning that a victory for Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker to weaken the rights of government workers there would undermine the strength of the labor movement nationally.
The rallies were part of a campaign by the liberal online group MoveOn.org to hold demonstrations supporting Wisconsin workers in state capitols and major cities across the country. The standoff in Wisconsin has galvanized labor activists and others who say Walker's effort is part of a larger assault on the Democratic Party and its aligned interest groups.
Walker, elected last fall with considerable tea party support, has said his state can no longer support the salaries and benefits public employees now enjoy. He wants workers to contribute more toward their pensions and health care costs and curtail their rights to bargain their labor contracts collectively.
Other governors, including New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo, have called on public workers to make wage concessions as a way to help close state budget deficits. But only a handful of Republican governors, including Walker and Indiana's Mitch Daniels, have called for the end of collective bargaining, which would essentially shut the unions down.
Labor unions traditionally support Democrats, contributing heavily to their campaigns.
In New York, among the most heavily unionized states, the apparent political motive brought James Boylan, a criminal investigator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, to the Albany rally, where demonstrators gathered in a snowy park outside the state Capitol.
"I see it as less about closing deficits and fixing budgets than consolidating political power," said Boylan, a member of Council 82, the New York Law Enforcement Officers Union. "It's more about crippling unions for political purposes.
His wife, artist Elizabeth Andrews, said she believed lawmakers were trying to turn people against each other while diverting attention from other factors that put a strain on the state budgets.
"I'm concerned it's spreading like a pestilence," Andrews said of the anti-union push against public workers in Wisconsin.
Outside New York's City Hall, activists toted signs, sang songs and held their union cards aloft. Many wore Wisconsin Cheesehead hats.
Emilio Smiriglio attended rally with his wife Alice, a high school math teacher and member of the state teacher's union.
"Our way of life is being stolen by the plutocrats. The wealthy are taking everything. It's time to stop," Emilio Smiriglio said.
Brooklyn construction worker Jim Lasker, 51, said he had come to the New York rally to speak up for collective bargaining.
"It gives people a little more power for their families to maybe live a better life, educate their children, give us a fair shot," Lasker said. "People say 'the union.' They forget the union is us. To me, it's a way of life."