Christie and Walker take different paths on union issues

AP News
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Posted: Feb 25, 2015 7:16 PM
Christie and Walker take different paths on union issues

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey's Chris Christie and Wisconsin's Scott Walker are getting ready to run for president, but they've still got day jobs as governors — and face another round in the ring with organized labor.

For Christie, that means trying to reach a deal to fix New Jersey's underfunded pension system by working with a teacher's union that he's repeatedly clashed with.

Walker, meanwhile, is prepared to sign legislation that would make Wisconsin a right-to-work state. He's dismissed the objections of union protesters as he did in 2011, when he made his national mark by pushing to strip the collective bargaining rights of the state's public workers.

The two different approaches — one seeking detente, the other not bothering — underscore the legislative realities each governor faces at home as well as the message each is trying to send as he prepares to enter the 2016 presidential campaign.

"We have proven time and again that even when we look like we're not going to make it work and that politics and partisan interests have won out, we flip the script," Christie said Tuesday in his state budget address, hailing what he called a "bipartisan reform plan."

"We do it differently," Christie said. "We get it done."

A Republican governor in a state with a Democratic legislature, Christie often has little choice but to work across the aisle. In 2010 and 2011, Democrats signed onto what he hailed as landmark legislation that he claimed would fix the bloated pension system once and for all.

It hasn't worked. Christie, who has been struggling to build momentum toward his expected 2016 bid, focused his budget address squarely on the issue of further reigning in pension and health benefit costs. He warned that more aggressive reforms are needed.

He also announced what he described as "an unprecedented accord" with the state's largest teachers' union. It's clear that frictions still remain. The president of the union, Wendell Steinhauer, said after the speech that Christie had "overstated" the nature of the deal and had only agreed to work together, not to specific reforms.

Walker, like Christie, sells his approach as that of a problem solver. But that approach includes no effort to work with the unions in his state.

He didn't negotiate in 2011, when Democrats in the state Senate fled to Illinois for three weeks to try to prevent his efforts to end collective bargaining for public workers. He didn't bow to pressure from protest crowds as large as 100,000 people that essentially took over the Wisconsin capitol.

Since then, Walker has rarely shied away from his efforts. He titled his 2013 book "Unintimidated" and brags in speeches to conservatives across the country that he's shown a willingness to unabashedly confront "big-government special interests." He won a recall election in 2012 and re-election last year.

Walker has long supported the pending right-to-work legislation, but has urged lawmakers to hold off on it for fear it would cause a distraction. But once Republican leaders in Madison announced they were moving ahead anyway, Walker said he'd be happy to sign it, seizing an opportunity to recapture his union-clashing mantle.

"I think people in our state, just like people in America, want a fighter, as long as the people fighting are fighting for people like them," he told reporters during a gathering of governors in Washington last weekend.

Signing the law, he said, would be viewed as "another positive" by voters, "because again, we're a proven problem solver. We get things done. And I think that's what people want, not only in my state, I think they want that across America."

For now, it's Walker's approach that appears to have the most immediate chance of success. The rallies against the right-to-work legislation in Wisconsin have failed to match those of 2011, and some union members even concede that their efforts are a lost cause.

"You fight the good fight against Walker and he beats you," said Seth Markgraf, a 34-year-old construction worker from Arlington, Wisconsin. "They beat us in the recall and they beat us in another general election. It's just apathy. How do we beat Scott Walker?"

In New Jersey, Christie doesn't have it as easy. Democratic lawmakers slammed him for reneging on his first-term deal by scaling back payments into the pension system. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who signed on to Christie's pension plan last time around, called his new proposal a nonstarter.

"There's a lack of vision and that's what hurts your economy," Sweeney said. "You're just basically floating in space."

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Bauer reported from Madison, Wisconsin. Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Washington and Michael Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.