As California’s budget debacle enters its fourth month, labor and environmental organizations are stepping up their fightback against the Republican drive to gut vital labor and environmental protections.

In a Feb. 4 telephone press conference, state labor leaders announced a mail and phone campaign to unmask Republican legislators demanding the takeaways as part of the stalled budget talks. The same day, labor and environmental leaders wrote to state Attorney General Jerry Brown, urging him to immediately investigate the Republicans for “vote trading” in their effort to win concessions on policy issues unrelated to the budget.

California Labor Federation head Art Pulaski told journalists that Republican legislators are creating “a hostage crisis” with their efforts to weaken 8-hour day legislation, overtime pay rules and meal break requirements — takeaways he said could hurt every working family.

“Never before has the budget process in Sacramento brought an imminent danger to the working lives of people in the private sector,” Pulaski said. “What they are proposing is a wish list of worker takeaways that only a corporate CEO could love.” He said the campaign to let voters know what their legislators are up to would start with Central Valley Assemblyman Danny Gilmore, and could extend to other Republican-held districts.

Dave Lowe of the California School Employees Association added that thought is also being given to the type of campaign that would effectively target Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

At press time, budget talks were stalled, as they have been since November when Schwarzenegger called a special legislative session to deal with a $42 billion-plus deficit through 2010. Minority Republicans have pledged to reject any new taxes; the Democrats lack the two-thirds majority required to pass the budget.

At an earlier press conference, Pulaski and other labor leaders said cutting workers’ earnings would only worsen the economic crisis, and warned of serious consequences, including recall efforts, for legislators demanding the takeaways. “The more money we put in average working people’s pockets, the more they’ll spend on local goods and services to keep the economy growing,” Pulaski said, but the “big business lobby” in Sacramento “is pushing for proposals they have sought for years and haven’t been able to get.”

In their letter to Attorney General Brown, the labor federation, the state Building and Construction Trades Council, Sierra Club California and the Planning and Conservation League charged that Republicans’ demands to weaken standards as a condition for their approval of an overall budget appeared to violate laws barring vote trading.

California is far from alone in facing a gap. At least 46 states face shortfalls this year and next, totaling over $350 billion. California’s gap is more than a quarter of its general fund, but Arizona’s is expected to reach nearly 30 percent, and at least five other states face gaps in the 20 percent range.

Meanwhile, San Francisco teachers, school workers, parents, students and elected officials rallied Feb. 3 to protest Schwarzenegger’s demand to cut over $10 billion from education.

“I don’t even want to imagine what will happen” if the cuts go through, Angelica Guerrero told the World. She predicted that “programs will disappear, teachers will lose their jobs, class size will soar, and kids won’t have what they deserve.” Guerrero’s two children attend Alvarado Elementary School, whose motto is: “We are all a big community.”

Michelle Menegaz, whose two daughters attend Grattan School, said she thinks the proposed cuts would have their biggest effect on class size. Though she described her daughters as “pretty well resourced,” she noted that one “needs more challenging” while the other “needs support.” Many parents don’t have those resources, she said. “We already have enough kids falling through the cracks.”

Said California Federation of Teachers leader Dennis Smith, “the governor’s uninformed belief in trickle-down economics put the California budget into a downward spiral from Day One. And today the situation is being worsened by the ditto-heads in the legislature who, as a group, have taken the Grover Norquist no-new-taxes pledge.”

Pointing out that after just two weeks in office, President Obama already had an economic recovery package before the Congress, School Superintendent Carlos Garcia added, “Legislators and the governor have had years to fix this problem. Here in California, we need some leadership, some vision.”