Addressing governors from around the country at the White House this morning, President Obama dedicated a moment of his speech to warning them not to vilify public workers.
"I believe that everybody should be prepared to give up something to solve our budget challenges," Obama said. "In fact, many public employees in your respective states have already agreed to cuts. But let me also say this: I don't think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or when their rights are infringed upon."
Thousands of public employees have protested in Wisconsin and Ohio as Republicans have proposed stripping them of some collective bargaining rights, as part of new state budget plans. Pensions and compensation to unionized state and municipal workers have come under increasing fire from conservatives during the past year.
"We need to attract the best and brightest to public service," Obama said. "We're not going to attract the best teachers for our kids if they only make a fraction of what other professions make ... Yes, we need a conversation about pensions and Medicare and Medicaid and other promises that we've made as a nation, and those will be tough conversations and necessarily conversations."
Obama has himself into the discussion over public-workers unions early on in the Wisconsin showdown.
As protests first unfolded in Madison two weeks ago, Obama told a Milwaulkee TV station, "Some of what I've heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you're just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally seems like more of an assault on unions." Obama's grassroots political arm, Organizing for America (which is run by the Democratic National Committee), has reportedly assisted in organizing protests in Wisconsin, drawing some criticism from conservatives who see it as in appropriate for Obama's political operation to stir opposition to a state's governor.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama enjoyed significant support from major unions, which have rallied around the collective-bargaining fights in Wisconsin and Ohio. He has long supported some of labor's prized policy initiatives.