JACKSON, Miss. – Whenever Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has asked lawmakers to weaken benefits for state employees, his proposals have met little resistance from workers.
Mississippi is among those states — many in the South — where most government employees do not have the right to collective bargaining, the benefit that has caused a political upheaval in Wisconsin and has become a national flashpoint for those who argue that public employee benefits are too generous.
Those states provide a snapshot of what life is like for government employees who do not have the same union clout that workers in Wisconsin and some other states are desperately trying to retain.
"We've been holding on by a hair through the political process," said Brenda Scott, head of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, which has no bargaining power but provides a voice for state government workers to air their concerns before the governor and Legislature.
Across the South, governors like Barbour and state legislatures dominated by conservative lawmakers find it relatively easy to chip away at public employees' benefits or eliminate government jobs because most state employees in the region — even when represented by a union — lack collective bargaining rights.
Nine of the 10 states with the lowest percentage of public employees eligible for collective bargaining are in the South, according to data compiled by Barry Hirsch of Georgia State University and David Macpherson of Trinity University in San Antonio. Their research shows only about two in five public employees nationwide have the type of collective bargaining rights that have drawn fire in Wisconsin and other states.
To be sure, government jobs are still seen as more secure and desirable than most private-sector jobs even in states where public employees do not have the right to collective bargaining. In Mississippi, one of the poorest states in the nation, state workers get 10 paid holidays a year, their sick days and vacation days can be rolled over from year to year, and they can retire after 25 years of service under a defined benefit plan. They also have a certain level of civil-service job protection.
But those workers have fewer protections and generally less generous compensation and benefits than public employees represented by collective bargaining. While pay and perks vary greatly among states, the primary benefit is that governors and lawmakers cannot unilaterally impose changes, such as pension reforms, without going to the bargaining table, nor can they impose lay-offs without following union tenure rules.
In California, where most state employees are covered by collective bargaining, negotiated labor contracts allow state workers to retire, collect their pensions and then return to work, allowing them to make more money than before. They also can purchase more lucrative pension benefits before they retire.
Two independent government auditing agencies in California have recommended reforming the state's pension system, even for current employees, but unions there have vowed to sue if the governor and Legislature try to enact reforms outside the bargaining process.
Governors and lawmakers in states without collective bargaining can make such changes without consulting workers. Pensions for new public employees in Virginia, for example, were shifted last year from the traditional defined benefit — the type of pension that many governments say they no longer can afford without major changes — to a 401(k)-style system similar to that used in the private sector. The change was made with little fanfare and no organized opposition.
In North Carolina, some state workers are represented by a local of the Service Employees International Union, but the group has no bargaining power. That leaves employees with no real say over how many jobs would be shed this year due to budget cuts — Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue has recommended eliminating 10,000 state government jobs, 3,000 of them currently filled.
In 2009, Perdue signed legislation that made sweeping changes to the state worker health insurance plans, creating higher premiums, deductibles and copays without having to get consent from an employee union. Barbour, a Republican with possible presidential ambitions, came into office on a promise to shrink Mississippi's state government and reduce employee benefits. Unencumbered by union contracts, he has scored a number of successes.
He persuaded the Legislature in 2004 to temporarily erase civil-service protections for corrections employees, which allowed the prison system to fire workers and trim the payroll. Mississippi lawmakers also voted last year to make public employees put 9 percent of their own pay into the state retirement system, up from 7.25 percent, and they've made government workers hired since 2006 pay more for their health insurance than their longer-serving colleagues.
Barbour defends his actions as tilting the balance of power away from unions and toward the side of state taxpayers. He said he supports Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's effort to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for government workers.
"When they have collective bargaining in Wisconsin, on one side of the table there's state employee unions or the local employee unions. On the other side of the table are politicians that they paid for the election of those politicians," Barbour said. "Now, who represents the taxpayers in that negotiation? Well, actually, nobody."
In states without collective bargaining, public employees are "completely subject to the power of the governor" because lawmakers often don't want to get involved labor disputes, said Ed Ott, who has been active in the New York labor movement for 42 years and is a former executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council AFL-CIO.
"It's really about a balance of power between employer and employee," said Ott, a lecturer on contemporary labor issues at the City University of New York's Murphy Institute. "Without any collective bargaining rights, you have no ability to say, 'Whoa, why don't we try something else?'"
Maryland and Tennessee have hybrid systems. Some Maryland employees are represented by unions and have the right to bargain with the governor, but there is no binding arbitration and no right to strike.
"We call it collective bargaining-lite L-I-T-E because they're not as strong as what you see in a number of the northern states," said Sue Esty, assistant director of the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Teachers in Tennessee have the right to collective bargaining, but other public employees do not. That is still too much for Republicans in that state's Legislature, who have wide majorities in both chambers and are looking to quash teachers' bargaining powers.
The Tennessee Education Association, which represents 52,000 teachers, has said the proposal is political payback by Republicans because the group has given more financial support to Democratic candidates over the years.
Gov. Bill Haslam has not signed on officially to the movement by his fellow Republicans, preferring to focus on teacher tenure, expanding charter schools and other issues he says are necessary to improve academic performance. But he also sympathizes with their intent to give the Legislature as much leeway as possible to control costs without having to submit to union negotiations.
"My job in the state of Tennessee is just like when I was running a company," said Haslam, a former president of Pilot Corp., a family owned national truck-stop chain. "It's to bring in the very best people to work, to provide the very best product we can, at the lowest price."
Like its neighboring states, Alabama does not allow public employees to bargain collectively, even though associations representing teachers and state workers have had some success working with the Legislature
Lawmakers have approved cost-of-living raises and maintained health and retirement benefits that are better than those offered by most private-sector employers in the state.
The two organizations, which traditionally have supported far more Democratic candidates than Republican ones, have come under attack since Republicans gained control of the Legislature in November. Since then, a new law has stopped the organizations from using payroll deductions to raise money for their political action committees and any other political activity, greatly reducing their influence.
When the Legislature convenes Tuesday, one of the House Republican leaders will push a bill to provide state-paid liability insurance for education employees. Currently, the Alabama Education Association supplies this insurance as an incentive for teachers to join.
"Obviously what they are trying to do is discourage members," said Paul Hubbert, the association's executive secretary.
Schelzig reported from Nashville, Tenn. Associated Press writers Bob Lewis in Richmond, Va., Gary Robertson in Raleigh, N.C., Brian Witte in Annapolis, Md., and Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Ala., contributed to this report.