Kitzhaber backs unions at Oregon Capitol rallies

Kitzhaber backs unions at Oregon Capitol rallies
Gov. John Kitzhaber addresses the hundreds of union members from across the state gathered on the steps of the Capitol, in Salem, Ore., to take part in the Oregon AFL-CIO Rally for Jobs on Monday, March 7, 2011. Gov. Kitzhaber vowed that changes to state union contracts would always be at the bargaining table. The rally was in support of Wisconsin state employee union members. (AP Photo/Statesman Journal, Timothy J. Gonzalez)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Oregon's governor told hundreds of union members who rallied Monday at the state Capitol that he'll ask public employees for concessions in "these tough fiscal times" but won't try to pare their collective bargaining rights.

"I want to start by making something perfectly clear — the state of Oregon will not go down the road Wisconsin has chosen," Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber told a cheering crowd of about 700 on the Capitol steps.

He referred to a proposal by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, to remove most collective bargaining rights for public employees, except over wage increases no greater than inflation. Police and fire departments would be exempted.

The labor rally was organized in part as a statement to Oregon lawmakers drafting the two-year state budget and as a show of solidarity with public employees in Wisconsin.

Many participants waved red "Wisconsin" signs, and signs that said "Fight back."

Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain said events in Wisconsin have only helped labor's cause around the country.

Kitzhaber has offered a proposal to the two largest unions representing state employees to scale back growth in benefits, including caps on health-insurance premiums and no more state "pickup" of the 6 percent employee share to the public-pension fund.

"You know I have made it clear that I'm going to ask our public employees to make some concessions to help us make it through these tough fiscal times," the governor said. "But those concessions will be made across a bargaining table through our collective bargaining process and with mutual respect.

"We will not solve our budget crisis or the challenges that face our system of public education or health care by attacking the labor movement or trying to make scapegoats out of our public employees."

One of the best ways to add jobs and improve the economy is to control the rapidly rising cost of health care, the governor said.

The Statesman Journal reported that the AFL-CIO's goal with the rally was also to promote jobs.

"We need good middle-class jobs in both the private and public sector," Chamberlain said.

Among the legislative proposals for which workers would advocate include Kitzhaber's plan for weatherization and other energy-efficiency measures for school buildings, job creation in construction and his proposed expansion of a tax break for Oregon film and video production.

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Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com