WASHINGTON - With a wary eye on Wisconsin, Republican leaders in several states are toning down the tough talk against public-employee unions and, in some cases, abandoning anti-union measures altogether.
• Indiana's governor urged GOP lawmakers to give up on a "right to work" bill for fear the backlash could derail the rest of his agenda.
• In Ohio, senators plan to soften a bill that would have banned all collective bargaining by state workers.
• And in Michigan, the Republican governor says he'd rather negotiate with public employees than pick a fight.
That's hardly enough to set labor leaders celebrating. They still face a slew of measures in dozens of states that seek to curb union rights. But union officials say they believe the sustained protests in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states are having an impact.
"It's still too early to tell, but I think the reaction that we're seeing from governors in other states really shows the power of workers standing together," said Naomi Walker, director of state-government relations at the AFL-CIO.
Swelling state budget deficits around the country, along with the effects of the recession on private-sector jobs, pay and benefits, have provided a potent platform for conservatives who argue that taxpayers no longer can afford the compensation, pensions and retiree health care that unions have gained from legislatures in years past. Headlines about state workers retiring at age 55 with six-figure pensions and health care for life don't help public employees' image.
Unions and national Democratic leaders have accused Republicans of overreaching in a politically motivated ploy to weaken unions, a core Democratic ally. And they have done their part to fight back, with unions sinking $30 million into a campaign to fight GOP efforts and Democratic activists helping to mobilize demonstrators.
"I think a number of other governors have decided that they do not want the kind of frustration that we see in Wisconsin," said Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the U.S. Senate. "I think they are taking a wise course in trying to solve problems rather than trying to lead a political crusade."
Meanwhile, governors in Michigan and Florida appear to be taking a more conciliatory approach to unions, hoping to avoid the full-fledged brawl in Wisconsin.
"That's not our path," said Michigan's Rick Snyder, who won election on a pro-business agenda. He said he wants cost savings, too, but "I and my administration fully intend to work with our employees and union partners in a collective fashion."
Likewise, Florida Gov. Rick Scott told a Tallahassee radio station, "As long as people know what they're doing, you know, collective bargaining's fine, but be honest with people, be honest with taxpayers. If you're going to give these benefits to people, whether it's pension benefits or health-care benefits, let's all be honest about it."
Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said the scope of the Wisconsin demonstrations seems to have caught Republicans by surprise.
"These guys in other states are equally conservative, but they don't want to create an unnecessary conflict which may prove politically embarrassing," Lichtenstein said.
But the polite talk doesn't mean Republican governors are backing down from other measures that could weaken union clout.
The GOP-controlled Florida Legislature is considering proposals that would direct new public employees to a defined-contribution retirement plan, reduce health benefits and prohibit union-dues deductions from paychecks.
In Tennessee, Republicans in the state Senate are moving forward on a bill to strip teachers of collective-bargaining rights.
And Missouri Republican lawmakers have advanced a "right to work" bill that bars union membership or fees as a condition of employment.