State public employees rally to protest governor

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California teachers, nurses, firefighters and other public employees are coming together to protest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s effort to privatize pension funds, increase patient-to-nurse ratios in hospitals, and slash school funding.

Many educators are concerned with Schwarzenegger’s 2005-06 state budget, released in January. Although it allows for a $2.9 billion increase in school spending, it denies schools an extra $2.3 billion in spending costs that they are entitled to under Proposition 98.

“Schwarzenegger broke his promise,” said Ann Shadwick, an ethnic studies librarian at San Francisco State University and a board member for the National Education Association. “Last year, he agreed that $2 billion could be borrowed from the education budget, but that it would be given back. He didn’t (give it back). Then he denied that he ever made that promise.”

Not only educators are concerned with Schwarzenegger’s endeavors, however. Thousands of public employees have united to form the Alliance for a Better California, a group that includes teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses and other public employees. Together, they have staged protests and rallies in opposition to the governor.

“(Schwarzenegger) lashed out at too many groups at once,” said Shadwick, who is also a member of the Alliance for a Better California. “Union dues, pension and budget cuts hit all of us.”

Carroll Wills, spokesperson for California Professional Firefighters, said Schwarzenegger is attacking the organization.

“Some firefighters are ready to fight,” Wills said. “They feel they’re being attacked and being made target(s).”

Wills said Schwarzenegger’s plan is to phase out pension funds for public employees, not just firefighters, and replace them with 401K plans. In the eyes of employees, pension plans are ideal, because the employer makes payments toward retirement, disability, or death benefits for the employee, whereas 401K plans deduct a portion of the employee’s salary from their paychecks and contributes it to an account.

“Firefighters see this as an attack on their retirement security,” Wills said. “(Firefighters) routinely sacrifice their lives and take a pay cut to get a good pension plan, because they know that this job will wear them down faster than other jobs. They want the security that their famil(ies) will be taken care of in case something happens to them. In one fell swoop, the governor has attempted to steal the retirement security from working people.”

Along with rallying and staging protests, Wills said some firefighters are following Schwarzenegger around the country and protesting as he tries to raise funds.

Fifty-five percent of the members of CPF are Republican, Wills said, and these members feel that the governor has cheated them, because they supported him and the Republican Party.

Nurses are also feeling the burden of increased patient-to-nurse ratios, causing several groups to protest against the governor, as well.

Last year, California became the first state in the nation to implement minimum staffing ratios for hospital nurses. The ratios were supposed to be phased in over a period of several years, and in January 2005, the ratio was supposed to drop down to one nurse for every five patients.

“Schwarzenegger halted the final implementation of the ratios,” said Deborah Burger, a nurse at Kaiser Hospital in Sonoma County and president of the California Nurses Association.

Burger said the governor took away the requirement that hospitals must follow the ratio requirement, and instead leaves it up to the hospitals to self-regulate and decide whether they need to follow the requirement.

“If there’s a sudden influx of patients, hospitals don’t have to stick to the ratio,” Burger said.

Burger, who has attended several organized protests against Schwarzenegger, said the public needs to know that the governor is not doing what he promised to do.

“Schwarzenegger has continued his marathon fundraising campaign, instead of doing his duties as governor,” Burger said. “He chastised (former) Gov. Gray Davis for his fundraising, but Schwarzenegger raised $38 million in 2004. And he plans on raising $12 million more. He’s putting everything in California up for sale, but pretending he’s a populist.”

Burger said that as the president of CNA, she has received numerous messages supporting their actions.

“We just want (Schwarzenegger) to back off the draconian policies and proposals and do what he’s supposed to do,” Burger said.