updated 2/25/2011 9:18:51 AM ET 2011-02-25T14:18:51

With a wary eye on Wisconsin, Republican leaders in several states are toning down the tough talk against public employee unions and, in some cases, abandoning anti-union measures altogether.

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Indiana's governor urged GOP lawmakers to give up on a "right to work" bill for fear the backlash could derail the rest of his agenda. In Ohio, senators plan to soften a bill that would have banned all collective bargaining by state workers. And in Michigan, the Republican governor says he'd rather negotiate with public employees than pick a fight.

Story: Making the puzzle fit in GOP/unions standoff

That's hardly enough to set labor leaders celebrating. They still face a slew of measures in dozens of states that seek to curb union rights. But union officials say they believe the sustained protests in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states are making an impact.

Story: Wis. Assembly passes bill taking away union rights

"It's still too early to tell, but I think the reaction that we're seeing from governors in other states really shows the power of workers standing together," said Naomi Walker, director of state government relations at the AFL-CIO.

The fight over labor rights that has spread across the country reached a boiling point in Wisconsin after Gov. Scott Walker proposed a bill that would end virtually all collective bargaining rights for state workers.

The legislation would force state and local public workers to contribute more toward their pensions and health care as well as strip them of the right to negotiate benefits and working conditions. They would largely be limited to negotiating pay raises no greater than the inflation rate.

Vote: Where do you stand on Wis. impasse?

Trying to avoid Wisconsin's 'frustration'?
Swelling state budget deficits around the country, along with the effects of the Great Recession on private-sector jobs, pay and benefits, have provided a potent platform for conservatives who argue that taxpayers no longer can afford the compensation, pensions and retiree health care that unions have gained from legislatures in years past. Headlines about state workers retiring at age 55 with six-figure pensions and health care for life don't help public employees' image.

Unions and national Democratic leaders have accused Republicans of overreaching in a politically motivated ploy to weaken unions, a core Democratic ally. And they have done their part to fight back, with unions sinking $30 million into a campaign to fight GOP efforts and Democratic activists helping to mobilize demonstrators.

"I think a number of other governors have decided that they do not want the kind of frustration that we see in Wisconsin," said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate. "I think they are taking a wise course in trying to solve problems rather than trying to lead a political crusade."

In Indiana, top Republican legislators have declared dead a "right to work" bill that would prohibit union representation fees from being a condition of employment at most private companies. Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is considering a presidential run, had been saying since December that he wanted to avoid a showdown with labor that could distract lawmakers from moving on proposals such as revamping public schools and the state budget.

Story: GOP-union debate escalates in Indiana

As in Wisconsin, the clash has drawn hundreds of protesters to the Indiana Statehouse and led most House Democrats to leave the state to shut down legislative business on the union bill and a slate of other issues. Daniels has appealed to the lawmakers to return because "their conscience tells them they should do their duty."

Republican Senate leaders in Ohio agreed to modify a bill that would have banned all collective bargaining by state employees. The GOP change — albeit minor — would allow workers to negotiate on wages but still would ban strikes.

Story: Wis. stalemate: Deal struck, cops sent to Dem homes

Ohio Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus denied the protests had any effect, saying the decision came after listening to hours of testimony. Democratic leaders consider the change "window dressing" and still want the bill scrapped.

It was still unclear Thursday whether leaders in the Republican-led Ohio Senate would be able to muster the GOP support needed to pass the bill in its current form.

'That's not our path'
Meanwhile, governors in Michigan and Florida appear to be taking a more conciliatory approach to unions, hoping to avoid the full-fledged brawl in Wisconsin.

"That's not our path," said Michigan's Rick Snyder, who won election on a pro-business agenda. He said he wants cost savings, too, but "I and my administration fully intend to work with our employees and union partners in a collective fashion."

Likewise, Florida Gov. Rick Scott told a Tallahassee radio station, "As long as people know what they're doing, you know, collective bargaining's fine, but be honest with people, be honest with taxpayers. If you're going to give these benefits to people, whether it's pension benefits or health care benefits, let's all be honest about it."

Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the scope of the Wisconsin demonstrations seems to have caught Republicans by surprise.

"These guys in other states are equally conservative, but they don't want to create an unnecessary conflict which may prove politically embarrassing," Lichtenstein said.

Weakening union clout
But the polite talk doesn't mean Republican governors are backing down from other measures that could weaken union clout.

Public employees in Florida, for example, are a focus of the Republican-controlled Legislature through proposals that would direct new hires to a defined contribution retirement plan, reduce health benefits and prohibit union dues deductions from paychecks.

In Tennessee, Republicans in the state Senate are moving forward on a bill to strip teachers of collective bargaining rights.

Story: Obama to greet Dem governors at White House

And union protests haven't deterred Republican lawmakers in Missouri from advancing a "right to work" bill that bars union membership or fees from being a condition of employment. Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer told The Associated Press that he intends to bring the legislation up for debate next week and is prepared for a lengthy Senate discussion.

"I'm aware that (protests) could take place and happen, but it will in no way keep me from moving forward with trying to implement the law," said Mayer.

James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said those governors who have made it a priority to rein in public employee unions appear resolved to keep up the fight.

"There shouldn't be a heckler's veto," Sherk said. "You shouldn't allow the voice of a few tens of thousands of protesters to drown out the millions of voters who expressed a desire for a change of course and more conservative policies."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Gov. Christie: State benefits are out of control

  1. Closed captioning of: Gov. Christie: State benefits are out of control

    >> thank you. chris christie is the republican governor of new jersey and is the first to take on public employee unions. good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> you are probably the best person to ask about an editorial in the new york times that says there is a political agenda by republican governors not just from wisconsin but in ohio and indiana that in each case, quote, republican talk of balancing budget is cover for the real purpose of gutting the political force of middle class state workers who are steady supporters of democrats and pose a threat to a growing conservative agenda. is there a republican political agenda to this attack or this effort, this pointed effort at unions?

    >> no. if you look at it, these fights are going on all over the country, not just with republicans but democrats. in california, jerry brown is talking about cutting take home pay and laying off a bunch of state workers. this is about reshifting our priorities. if you want to do things in new jersey like i want to do -- provide property tax relief for middle class taxpayers you can't continue to pay health benefits in new jersey where the government pays 92% of health care for each person. that doesn't happen anywhere. we have to make choices and they have to be part of the shared sacrifice.

    >> the idea that some critics have that you are making unions scapegoats for a problem that wasn't really created by unions but was created by wall street , the banks and the downturn in the economy, what do you say to the critics?

    >> they're not paying attention. if they were, the problems here that are created on the state budget , sure we have a deficit. the benefits and costs are out of control. 24,000 a year, 8% of the cost the taxpayers pay the rest. we cannot afford these things and we have a pension deficit of 54 billion dollars in new jersey. that wasn't created by wall street . that was created by the fact that the benefits are too high and the payments in are too low.

    >> the problem isn't just be states with collective bargaining deals. frx, many states have denied collective bargaining rights that also have very large budget deficits n. some ways it doesn't sort of make sense, the idea that the unions are to blame.

    >> i'm not saying it's just about collective bargaining , ann. even in states where it doesn't exist, legislators have been too generous with public employees over time . it's not just collective bargaining . it's wanting to say yes all the time as a public official . you never want to say no because you're more popular if you say yes. you know what? it's time to say no to things so we can say yes to create a more prosperous future.

    >> it hasn't hurt your popularity. as an example of how much the republican party loves your message, many are pushing you to run for president in 2012 . ann coulter says syou are the only republican who would win. you're shaking your head and saying you're not running but who do you think is in line to beat barack obama ?

    >> i think the field the wide open . i don't know who the field will be. is mitch daniels going to run? i don't know. is hayley barber going to run? on a. you have to see who the field will be before you know who the front runner is. i'm going to do my job in new jersey and we'll see.

    >> okay. i have to ask about this official in one of your top advisers who said he didn't want to leave money on the table. he's forming a political action committee and that's raised everybody's eyebrows thinking you are running. are you really not running?

    >> there is no chance. zero chance.

    >> okay.

    >> under any circumstances. le close the door and nail it shut.

    >> what's it for?

    >> a partner of mine said the federal pac may be a good idea. i don't have plans to do it and i'm not running.

    >> okay. you're raising money then but you're also losing weight .

    >> trying.

    >> how much?

    >> we don't give numbers out, ann.

    >> come on. you're talking to me.

    >> look at you. you don't have to worry about it.

    >> we all do!

    >> come on.

    >> you look good.

    >> i feel better. what's most important is i started to do this because i have four children between 7 and 17. i want to be here for them.

    >> okay.

    >> for the long haul. they're not worried about the numbers and neither am i. i'm feeling better. we are moving in the right direction. it's just like new jersey. we're not better yet, but we are moving in the right direction.

    >> you're quick to turn that. just to say, a lot of political candidates start losing weight , that's the first sign. just saying. for president.

    >> i'll be married 25 years. that's one of the spurs. i want my wife to hang in there with me.

    >> all right. well, i do, too. governor, thank you so much.

    >> appreciate it.

Vote: Vote: Where do you stand on Wis. impasse?