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Obama’s union comments in South Carolina reverberate in Wisconsin

Los Angeles Times

Back on Nov. 3, 2007, Barack Obama, then a candidate for president. minced no words in describing his support for unionized workers who were facing problems.

“Understand this,” Obama told an audience in Spartanburg, S.C., where he was campaigning against then-front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president.

“If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain,” Obama said. “When I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America, because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.”

With Republican-led Wisconsin well on the road to passing measures that would limit collective bargaining for most public employees, those words have come back on now-President Obama.

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On Thursday and Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked whether the president was planning to travel to Wisconsin to join protests, as some lawmakers have asked. Now in their second week, the demonstrations have drawn tens of thousands of people to the Capitol in Madison. All 14 Democratic state senators have the fled the state, preventing the enactment of the anti-union measures proposed by Gov. Scott Walker and already passed by the GOP-controlled Assembly.

“There are a variety of ways to communicate,” Carney said on Friday. “Whatever shoes he [Obama] is wearing, ” he is standing with American workers and the middle class, Carney said. Initially, Obama spoke strongly against Walker’s proposals to have public employees pay more for their health and pension benefits. The plan would also curb many of the collective-bargaining rights that the unions now have.

“Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain, generally seems like more of an assault on unions,” Obama said in an interview this month with WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee.

There were also claims by the Obama campaign arm, Organizing for America, that it was helping protesters. When Republicans, including Walker, complained, the White House later minimized those reports. Organizing for America is now part of the Democratic National Committee.

All this has left Obama searching for a center that will hold his political weight as he heads into the 2012 presidential election in a state, Wisconsin, considered pivotal to his reelection chances. Perhaps just as important is the issue of fiscal cuts in general, one that will be part of the political fighting between Democrats and Republicans in Washington.

Carney linked the issues on Thursday.

“Obviously a lot of states in the union are dealing with fiscal issues, big problems in their state budgets that need to be addressed,” Carney told reporters. “They need to act responsibly, tighten their belts, live within their means, just as we in Washington, the executive branch and Congress, need to do with our federal situation.”

Carney indicated that he did not know of any plans for the president to head to Wisconsin, but that there was someplace that all of the contending participants could go – the bargaining table.

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Obama, he said, “believes very strongly …that people need to come to the table, work together, share the sacrifice, and produce the result that the people in the states want and, again, extrapolating to the larger picture here, the whole country -- do the things that we need to do to live within our means.”

Michael.muskal@latimes.com

Twitter.com/LATimesmuskal


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