Governors Meet As Pro-Union Protests Spread

Many of the nation's governors are in Washington, D.C., this weekend for the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association. The gathering comes as supporters of public employee unions are staging massive protests and legislative boycotts across the country. Host Liane Hansen talks with Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, who heads the National Governors Association.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Many of the nation's governors are in Washington, D.C. this weekend for the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association. The gathering comes as supporters of public employee unions are staging protests and legislative boycotts across the country. The protesters oppose the efforts by some Republican governors to curtail the bargaining rights of state workers.

In a moment, more about the debate over public sector unions, but first to Washington governor, Democrat Chris Gregoire. She chairs the National Governors Association and she's with us. Welcome back to the program.

Governor CHRIS GREGOIRE (Democrat, Washington; Chair, National Governors Association): Well, thank you. It's good to be back.

HANSEN: Budget deficits are the primary focus of many state legislatures across the country. Many governors are taking a get-tough approach with public employee unions. In your view, do you think the demands of labor unions are crippling state budgets?

Ms. GREGOIRE: No. Our labor unions didn't cause this budget crisis for us. They have sacrificed to help us solve it. I've just finished collectively bargaining with my unions and had an overwhelming confirmation of it by their vote. They contributed with a salary cut; they contributed by paying more in health care. They have stepped up and said we want to be a part of the solution. I did it by going to the table, respecting their collective bargaining rights and we got the job done.

HANSEN: Might these protests change the way some governors approach negotiations with their public employee unions?

Ms. GREGOIRE: You know, I don't think so. My fellow governors, like myself, understand the way to success is sitting at the table, respecting the collective bargaining rights of our unions - teachers among them - and asking for them to sacrifice. And when I did that, they stepped up and said it's tough on us, it's tough on our families but we didn't come to public service for money. We came to serve, we want to be part of the solution, we're willing to sacrifice.

HANSEN: Can you briefly tell us how you dealt with the budget crisis in your own state, Washington?

Ms. GREGOIRE: What we did is said fundamentally we have to transform state government like any business has had to do, like any family has had to do. We need to step up. We need to make cuts where it's appropriate. We need to understand education is the key to our future. We need to transform state government by getting rid of programs that haven't worked, getting rid of programs that we can't afford anymore, consolidating where appropriate and then working with our communities - our faith community, our nonprofits - to ask them to be a part of this safety net that we can no longer provide.

HANSEN: Was it a tough call to make those cuts?

Ms. GREGOIRE: You know, it was the most heart-wrenching thing I've done in public life. I have spent a career in public service and I now have submitted a budget in many ways dismantles much of what I've tried to accomplish over my lifetime and my career.

But that is a sign of the times. We have got to get our way through this. We've got to come out stronger, we've got to come out transformed at the other end, we've got to put America back to work. And in order to do that, we've got to make sure that our education system is ready to step up and make sure that every child gets a chance, every business has a great employee and every state is prospering because they invested in education.

HANSEN: You served as governor of Washington for six years. Your second term ends in 2012. Will you run again?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GREGOIRE: You know, I don't have the time to even give that a thought. I'm struggling with the current crisis.

HANSEN: But you think about that - as Scarlett O'Hara said, you'll think about that tomorrow.

Ms. GREGOIRE: Exactly.

HANSEN: Washington Governor Chris Gregoire chairs the National Governors Association, which is meeting this weekend here in Washington, and we reached her at the convention venue. Thank you so much, governor, and I hope your laryngitis gets better.

Ms. GREGOIRE: Thank you.

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