Vermont governor at labor protest: 'Maple sugar' better than 'vinegar'

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin got a thunderous round of applause Sunday from union activists when he joined in their protest against Republican state leaders who want to curtail union rights.

Shumlin, a Democrat, stood out as the only state executive who addressed the dozens of union members chanting outside the National Governors Association winter meeting in downtown Washington, D.C.

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"I just want to say that not all governors are one and the same," Shumlin told the crowd. "In Vermont, we know that we have more success with maple sugar than we do with vinegar."

The protesters, most of them from the D.C. area, were demonstrating in solidarity with the tens of thousands of union members who have been rallying in Wisconsin's capital - and across the nation - all week against Gov. Scott Walker's plan to curtail collective bargaining rights for state workers.

"You all are the backbone of America," Shumlin said. "And I think what has been lost in this debate is that it's not the hard-working middle-class, it's not the families and labor that got us into this mess. It's the greed on Wall Street."

Shumlin is a liberal leader - he wants Vermont to adopt a single-payer healthcare system - in a decidedly left-of-center state (the state's junior senator, Bernie Sanders (I), is the only self-described socialist in Congress).

Protesters included many federal workers, who don't have the same bargaining rights that many state workers do.

"I hope Walker's awoken a sleeping dragon," said Toby Levin, a retired attorney for the federal government.

Wisconsin faces a $3.6 billion hole in the 2011-2013 budget, and Walker maintains that stripping unions of their right to collectively bargain for benefits and working conditions will help close the gap.

But he did his fiscal responsibility argument no favor when he answered a prank call last week, thinking it was from billionaire industrialist and Tea Party supporter David Koch. The governor told the liberal blogger that he showed his Cabinet a photo of Ronald Reagan before announcing his intent to attack collective bargaining rights and told them "this is our time to change the course of history."

On Sunday, Walker defended himself on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"We're broke and it's about time somebody stood up and told the truth in this state," Walker said. "I make no apology for the fact that this is an important moment in time."

Many of the protesters Sunday bore signs criticizing big business and corporate greed. They implied that Walker's true intent is to weaken a traditional ally of the Democratic Party, not save the state from fiscal ruin as he claims.

"Hey, governors, you can't hide," the protesters chanted. "We can see your corporate side."

Few other governors have gone as far as Walker, worried that a protracted fight against powerful labor interests could stymie their agendas.

The protesters at the NGA meeting said part of their goal was to warn other state leaders that they, too, would face massive demonstrations if they follow Walker's lead.

"We're spreading the word to the other governors and spreading the news that to the people of Wisconsin that the rest of the country is behind them," said Marc Norberg, a leader of the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association who flew in from Wisconsin on Saturday evening.

Ironically, the main target of the protesters' ire wasn't even there. Walker, who chairs the NGA's health and human services panel and was scheduled to lead a discussion on the long-term sustainability of the Medicaid program, opted to stay in Madison until state lawmakers take up the budget-repair bill.

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