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State and Local Government Workers Need Better Union Leadership

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From watching the news or reading the AFL-CIO blog, it seems the growing government-worker demonstrations in state capitols have all the zeal and righteousness of the recent pro-democracy Egypt protests. Their passion is understandable -- after all, they are seeking to protect hard-fought benefits packages obtained in earlier negotiations. Moreover, government workers justifiably feel like scapegoats for politicians eager to balance budgets.

But these are hardly pro-democracy protests. In fact, they are anti-democracy protests. Protest leaders are seeking to thwart the will of voters and a public increasingly upset that government workers are taking advantage of their already generous entitlement packages to the disadvantage of taxpayers.

Americans are fed up that teachers unions protect bad teachers and block reform. We're frustrated that government workers spike their final-year salary and over-time pay to obtain a high life-time payout, effectively gaming the system. We wonder why large pockets of government workers retire early with a "disability." We chafe at government health-care policies and pensions in which state and local employees contribute little, if anything, while benefiting from generous payouts that squeeze government budgets.

Meanwhile, the union leadership approaches every cut as an attack that must be defended as a last stand. Last week, several Wisconsin districts closed schools as teachers went to protest a proposal seeking to eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, introduced the proposal as a way to deal with the state's $3.6 billion budget shortfall without laying off government workers.

It's not only Republican leaders making these decisions to balance state budgets. Democratic governors including New York's Andrew Cuomo and California's Jerry Brown are making tough decisions to deal with the reality that revenue is no longer there to pay the salary, benefits and post-retirement pay and healthcare of government workers.

But like petulant children, union leaders are urging their members to demand the status quo rather than deal with the new reality of state and local governments teetering on bankruptcy. Rather than advocating governments ignore the deficit problem, union leaders could do some good by being part of the solution.

Union leaders could propose ways to consolidate and cut government spending to save money. No one has better knowledge than the government workers themselves what is excessive spending. Politicians are eager to hear how to cut waste, and the unionized government leadership can present itself as part of the solution rather than simply adding to the problem.

It's time we all make difficult choices and cut back on entitlement spending and government programs -- we can no longer afford the status quo, and staying wedded to our old ways disadvantages future generations. It's no longer feasible to just suggest all of our budget problems can be fixed by raising taxes on Americans making more than $250,000 a year. Instead, unions should be creative and think about how else to ease financial problems. Adding jobs is one way -- employed people pay income tax. Unions can help by encouraging a state to be business friendly. Virginia is a great example of this: it has a low unemployment rate because the state has found a way to be bipartisan in its approach to business without kowtowing to unions.

Unions should use their political power to be creative. States are hurting due to declining tax revenue. Some of this revenue is sales tax revenue being lost as consumers buy from Internet retailers. Meanwhile, local retailers such as Borders, Tweeter and Ultimate are closing stores and further eroding not only sales tax revenue but also jobs and thus state income tax revenue. Rather than focus on just union jobs, savvy union leaders should focus on the health of the overall state economy and tax revenue.

Unions can no longer supersede the popular will of state and local voters to get their way. Yet, in the case of the Wisconsin protests, the unions reached out to a higher power for help trumping local concerns. The Daily Caller reports that the organizing arm of the Democratic National Convention, "Organizing for America," which helped elect President Obama, is behind much of the energy of the Wisconsin protests. Reportedly the campaign is filling buses and running phone banks, and even President Obama accused Gov. Walker of running "an assault on unions."

Now is the time for unions to elevate the discourse and show the leadership our nation needs. Rather than organizing massive protests at state capitals, they should join the rest of us in grappling with our nation's budget problems. There has never been a better time for unions to be part of the solution.

Gary Shapiro is the president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents more than 2,000 technology companies and owns and produces the International CES. Shapiro is the author of The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.