Several hundred angry state workers rallied on the west steps of the Capitol today to protest Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plans to temporarily slash the pay of most of them to $6.55 an hour because of the state's continuing budget mess.
Waving pennants and placards with the slogan "Value Us," the crowd listened to speeches by union leaders and several Democratic legislators.
"It appears to me that the governor did not know who he was messing with," said Yvonne Walker, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1000. "We're not political pawns."
"How many of you," she asked, "can pay your mortgage 'eventually?'" "How many of you can go to the grocery store and say 'hey, catch you later?'"
Another union official, Larry Perkins, suggested that if the governor's plan is enacted, workers should work for 20 minutes, then take a 40-minute break to reflect their reduced compensation.
"I don't know about you," Perkins said, "but I'm not working for $6.55."
The Democratic lawmakers seized the opportunity to rip into their Republican counterparts, who have been emphatic in opposing a proposed Democratic budget that includes about $8 billion in tax increases, mostly on the wealthy.
"It's unfair and outrageous," said Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento. "The budget can't be balanced on the backs of state workers."
Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, said after the rally that Schwarzenegger's proposal caught Democrats by surprise.
"I was with the governor twice yesterday," Perata said. "He didn't even bring this up. So if he wanted to leverage me, you know, it's like you put a gun to your head and say hey, I want your attention now."
Perata also said he didn't have a clue as to the governor's motives, but whatever they were, the move was a mistake.
"I don't know why he did it. It was certainly unnecessary. It's incendiary. You know, he is really trying to incite the wrong people. But if he wants a fight, he's going to have a fight ... this is an act of war. It's a declaration. He is doing war on the people of this state who make California run. So whoever advised him ought to be in an unemployment line right now. If he thought of it himself, shame on him."
Perata's sentiments were echoed often and loudly in the crowd.
"I can't imagine what the governor is thinking when he says we're not worth more than the minimum wage when the economy has so many issues, like cost of gas and mortgage payments," said Nancy Lyerla, a registered nurse who works for the state.
Others were frustrated by both Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.
"It's ridiculous that the governor and Legislature can't get a budget on time," said Jim Hard, the SEIU's immediate past president and an Employment Development Department worker. "We're very angry and frustrated that they disrespect the services that we provide to the people of California, otherwise they would pass a budget that funds it and end the ideological game playing."
But a few in the crowd were less than empathetic with the state employees' potential plight.
"This is what state workers do," said Mike Hammond, who said he owns a Rancho Cordova electrical firm that sometimes does business with the state, and who interrupted one speaker by booing and shouting "go back to work" before being escorted away from the steps by security.
"They make a big production of everything when it hasn't even happened yet. Has a single state worker missed a paycheck yet? Arnold is going to do what he wants to do ... if they don't like working for the state, go get another job."
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