Their clout in peril, public employee unions push back 

Public employee unions are pushing Congress for $23 billion to extend stimulus payments to school teachers, including an ad campaign that shows children dressed as Wall Street bankers asking for a bailout.

But the union pressure may not be enough, as lawmakers reject new spending amid rising public anger over the nation's staggering deficit.

WIth their influence in jeopardy, unions that represent public employees will be waging a costly battle in the months ahead to support pro-union candidates in a difficult electoral environment.

Republicans are expected to pick up dozens of seats in the House and several seats in the Senate, making it harder for Congress to pass pro-union legislation.

More GOP lawmakers could also mean more stringent kinds of education reform that teachers unions have traditionally resisted.

In New Jersey, teachers unions have suffered from a bruising battle with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who proposed cutting $820 million in school aid and wants teachers to accept a wage freeze and a plan to tie pay to performance.

Hoping to avoid a similar fight in Florida, the unions are playing it safe in the state's U.S. Senate race. In an unusual move, the Florida Education Association decided to endorse not only the Democratic candidate, Rep. Kendrick Meek, but also Gov. Charlie Christ, a former Republican who is now running as an Independent.

Crist won favor with the unions for vetoing a bill that would have tied teacher pay to performance and made it easier for school districts to dismiss incompetent teachers.

The unions are also hard at work in Arkansas, where incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat, is facing a primary runoff challenge from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. The unions are backing Halter, mostly out of anger that Lincoln refused to support "card check" legislation that would have allowed unions to organize workplaces without holding secret-ballot elections. They are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into anti-Lincoln television ads.

The rain of union attacks has gotten so heavy that former President BIll Clinton, campaigning on Lincoln's behalf last week, told supporters that the outside labor groups have invaded Arkansas and are manipulating the vote.

Union influence may be waning, however.

Several states, including Louisiana, Colorado and New York, have put in place education reform tying teacher pay to performance and expanding publicly funded but privately run charter schools. State lawmakers made the changes in order to compete for $4.3 billion in grants under the Obama administration's Race to the Top initiative, which requires states to put in place certain school reforms.

Colorado's new law requires half of a teacher's performance score to be linked to student achievement.

"I think there are more and more people who now agree that the system needs dramatic change and that's a wave that is hard to stop," said Democratic state Sen. Mike Johnston a former teacher who helped write the reform legislation.

A New Jersey poll released earlier this week supports Johnston's assertion. It showed that since the bitter clash began between the unions and Christie, public opinion of the unions has sunk. The Fairleigh Dickinson University's Public Mind Poll found that 44 percent of voters have an unfavorable opinion of the unions, up from 35 percent in March.

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Susan Ferrechio

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