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Obama to Unions: I Back You, But You Must 'Sacrifice'

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At a town hall meeting in Decorah, Iowa, yesterday, President Obama offered a defense of public sector labor unions, particularly against efforts at the state level to scale back their collective bargaining rights.

But at the same time, the president delivered what has become a standard "on the other hand" part of his statements on budget issues -- that public employees are going to have to experience "shared sacrifice and burden sharing" when it comes to cutting the cost of government.

Here's video of the town hall:

And here's the full relevant section of Obama's response to a question about unions:

There are a whole range of things that people take for granted, even if they're not in a union, that they wouldn't have had if it had not been for collective bargaining. (Applause.) So I think it is very important, whether you are in a union or not -- and I speak particularly to young people, because you've grown up at a time when in a lot of circles "union" somehow is a dirty word -- to understand all this is is people joining together so they've got a little more leverage; so they've got better working conditions, better wages; they can better support their family.

And a lot of us entered into the middle class because our parent or a grandparent was in a union. Remember that. When I hear this kind of anti-union rhetoric and anti-union assaults, I'm thinking these folks have amnesia. They don't remember that that helped build our middle class and strengthen our economy.

Now, you're right. Most of this activity right now is being done at the state level, although I will tell you that some of the assaults on collective bargaining are taking place at the federal level. You remember this FAA situation where they were shutting down the airports for -- threatening to shut down the airports and we were going to be laying off tens of thousands of people? The reason that happened was because folks on the other side in the House of Representatives decided, let's try to slip in a provision that could make it harder for people to collectively bargain in the aviation industry. And Democrats wouldn't go along. And so they said, okay, well, we're not going to renew funding for this.

So we're seeing some of that at the federal level as well, and we're fighting back, pushing back against these efforts to diminish the capacity to exercise their basic freedoms and their basic rights.

Now, at the state level, in addition to just providing vocal support for public employees, what I also have been trying to do is to help states so that they can meet their obligations to their public employees and to emphasize how important it is to our future collectively that we have, for example, teachers that are getting paid a good wage. We can't recruit the kinds of teachers that we need in the classroom.

And in most countries that are doing well right now educationally, their teachers are revered. They get paid on par with doctors and engineers, because there is an understanding that this is a critical profession for the future of the nation.

I do say, though, to my friends in the public sector unions that it is important that you are on the side of reform where reform is needed. Because the truth of the matter is, is that at a time when everybody is belt-tightening, there is nothing wrong with a union saying to itself, you know what, we know budgets are hard right now. Let's sit down and say we're willing to negotiate so that we're making some sacrifices to maintain the number of teachers in the classroom and keep class sizes at a reasonable level. We're willing to make some modifications in terms of how our pension systems work so that they're sustainable for the next generation of teachers as long as it's a conversation, as opposed to it simply being imposed and collective bargaining rights being stripped away.

So I think it's important -- remember we talked about shared sacrifice and burden sharing. Well, this is an area where there's got to be burden sharing as well. If a public sector employee is able to retire at 55 with 80 percent of their wages, and the average public sector employee has got a 401(k) that they've just seen decline by about 20 percent and they have no idea how they're going to retire, and they're feeling burdened by a lot of taxes and they don't feel like the public sector employers are making any adjustments whatsoever to reflect the tough economic realities that are facing folks who are not protected, then there's going to be a natural backlash.

If there's a feeling that unions aren't partners in reform processes in things like education, then they're going to end up being an easy target. So there's got to be an understanding of, on the one hand, we've got to revere public employees -- I was saying when I was in Cannon Falls that people are tired of politics, but they're not tired of government. They may not realize it, but government are our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Government are our teachers in the classroom. Government are the FEMA folks who help people when there's a flood or a tornado or a natural disaster.

Tom Shoop is vice president and editor in chief at Government Executive Media Group, where he oversees both print and online editorial operations. He started as associate editor of Government Executive magazine in 1989; launched the company’s flagship website, GovExec.com, in 1996; and was named editor in chief in 2007.

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