Schwarzenegger has been demonizing the unions in California, holding them responsible for the 22 billion dollar deficit that he inherited. And now the unions are firing back. -Angela
Sharp words from public workers he has called 'special interests'
- Mark Martin, John M. Hubbell, Chronicle Staff Writers
Thursday, May 26, 2005
Sacramento -- Thousands of public employees staged the biggest political rallies of the year at the state Capitol and in Los Angeles on Wednesday, charging that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's policy agenda shortchanges schoolchildren and undermines the fabric of California's poor and middle class.
The protests came after weeks of increasingly heated, campaign-style rhetoric from both sides as Schwarzenegger moved the state closer to a special election on issues such as state spending and teacher tenure.
Schwarzenegger has derided unions as "special interests" whose grip on Democratic party politics is the source of many of the state's ills. At the Capitol on Wednesday, firefighters, teachers, nurses and others -- many wearing the insignias of their professions -- stood under a sweltering late- afternoon sun and, in the most charged and personal rhetoric yet, fired back.
"The CEO of California is ... picking on women in wheelchairs," Frances Gracechild, director of Resources for Independent Living, told a crowd of roughly 10,000 people. "The only thing I can think of so he won't have to do hard time in hell is resign."
California Teachers Association President Barbara Kerr, an increasingly vocal critic of the governor, accused him of trying to "silence the voices of working people" through a proposed ballot initiative that could hobble political activity by unions.
The Sacramento rally, which occurred simultaneously with a similar protest in Los Angeles' Pershing Square, clogged the Capitol's south lawn, where protesters packed together closely enough to keep a giant beach ball aloft. One man suffered an apparent heart attack near the stage; his condition was unknown.
Schwarzenegger spokesman Vince Sollitto said the rally was sponsored by the same groups that created a $22 billion deficit that the governor inherited.
"These are the groups that are bound and determined to maintain the status quo,'' Sollitto said.
Schwarzenegger was on the attack himself Wednesday, using an appearance at a state Chamber of Commerce-sponsored breakfast to ridicule the Democrat- controlled Legislature. Noting that a state commission voted Monday to give lawmakers a 12 percent pay increase, Schwarzenegger listed some of the state's problems and blamed lawmakers for them.
"They have spent all of that money, and they went and created a $22 billion debt,'' he said. "And they continue to spend more than we have. And they have chased businesses out of the state and jobs out of the state. They took the economy right down into the toilet and almost made the state go into bankruptcy.
"Yes, they deserve a raise! That's fair!" he said, drawing laughs from the crowd. "Under any normal circumstances, they would be fighting to keep their jobs and keep their salaries."
It was a day in which the battle lines in Sacramento were clearly visible. Schwarzenegger, who has consistently allied with business interests since becoming governor, received a hero's welcome at the Chamber of Commerce event in downtown Sacramento. Hours later, less than a mile away on the south steps of the Capitol, thousands of protesters sheltered themselves from the sun with signs that ranged from the plaintive to the personal.
"Where are you, Maria?" read one, referring to Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, a Democrat.
"Ship Boobengrabber and his anorexic frau back to Austria," read another.
Anger at Schwarzenegger ran the gamut Wednesday, protesters objecting to his attack on nurse-to-patient ratios, his discarded plan to limit state contributions to pensions and a budget initiative that would alter voter- approved safeguards for school spending. The governor has said he plans to put his agenda up for a vote in a November special election.
Education remains the hottest point of contention between the governor and his adversaries, each side saying it is defending children from the other.
For his part, Schwarzenegger toured a charter school in Sacramento, his second appearance at a public school in a week.
After watching a student drama group perform a scene from Shakespeare's "Richard III," Schwarzenegger recapped his education budget proposal to a group of pupils, telling them he is pouring more than $50 billion into K-12 funding and spending more than $3 billion on education more than a voter- approved Proposition 98 requires.
Schwarzenegger also is proposing to increase the time it takes for a teacher to get tenure, and he wants to spend $170 million paying teachers bonuses for working in low-performing schools.
While the governor insists he is spending adequately on education, that claim was disputed at the Sacramento rally. Education advocates repeated their charges that Schwarzenegger reneged on a deal he made with them last year and owes schools $1.8 billion -- which Schwarzenegger denies.
Critics also disagree that the governor is spending enough on education, noting that the state's per-pupil spending lags nationally.
"There's not enough full-time teachers, and I don't feel like we're getting the money that we need to get to support them," said Amanda Green, a 28-year-old first-year teacher of English at Berkeley High School. While Schwarzenegger was watching students perform Shakespeare, Green said that even reading a play could be a problem in her class.
"I don't have enough books ... to teach to all of my kids at the same time," she said. "There's nothing more frustrating than not having enough copies of 'Huckleberry Finn' in working condition or basic Shakespeare being inaccessible -- having Act I fall out of every copy."
"We don't have money to replace those things," she said.
-- A coalition of labor unions called Alliance for a Better California is opposed to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed government shakeup, which he plans to put on the ballot in a special election in November.
-- The governor has endorsed initiatives that would change legislative redistricting and teacher tenure and impose new controls on the state budget. His top political adviser has said Schwarzenegger might campaign for a measure that would curb the ability of public employee unions to use dues for political purposes.
-- Schwarzenegger says special interests in Sacramento, including unions, hold too much power and are blocking reforms.
Chronicle staff writer Lynda Gledhill contributed to this report.E-mail the writers at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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