Debate About Public Sector Unions Burns On in Ohio

Labor is fighting to repeal a law that restricts collective bargaining

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The fight over the rights of public sector workers to bargain with government was loudest in Wisconsin, but the front-lines of the battle are in Ohio now. There, labor unions are fighting to repeal Senate Bill 5, which significantly alters collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.

The unions and supporters of the law, including Republican legislators and Gov. John Kasich, are waging an all-out proxy war, The New York Times reports, one that could top $20 million in spending before voters go to the polls to decide whether Senate Bill 5 should be repealed. Those funds are fueling campaigns of phone-banking and door-knocking by opponents and supporters of the change alike. Labor is picking up the tab for repeal efforts, while business groups and donors to conservative causes are supporting the law.

The Ohio law "goes further than the antibargaining law that Wisconsin’s Republican-led Legislature enacted in March over the protests of tens of thousands of union supporters," The Times says.

Ohio’s law allows only limited bargaining: If management and union do not reach a settlement, then city councils and school boards can impose their side’s final contract offer unilaterally. The Ohio law bans binding arbitration and bargaining on health coverage, pensions or staffing levels. It also requires government workers to pay at least 15 percent of their health insurance costs and pay 10 percent of their salaries toward their pensions.

The Ohio Senate president, Thomas E. Niehaus, who is campaigning against repeal, said, “These are reasonable reforms asking our public sector employees to do what private sector employees have been doing for decades: paying more for their health care and their pension benefits.” He denied that the bill eviscerated collective bargaining. “We are reforming collective bargaining,” he said.

But one prominent Republican opponent of Senate Bill 5, State Senator Bill Seitz, said the bill all but erased collective bargaining by letting management decide which side’s final offer would prevail. He said it was like “going to divorce court and finding out your wife’s father is the judge.”

On the ground in Ohio, some observers say the law could fail because of one fateful decision by its Republican authors: they didn't carve out an exemption for police and firefighters, so those unions are fiercely battling the law, and using the substantial goodwill they receive from the public to do so.

They are laying it on thick. Here's the ad the union coalition is running, directly tying changes in bargaining laws to reduced public safety.

Another, uploaded to YouTube and featuring the logo of the International Association of Fire Fighters, is set to music from Braveheart and features a photograph of firefighters walking toward the burning World Trade Center. (It seems like an interesting signal of the demographics of this fight, or at least the organizing tactics, that it's a lot easier to find criticism of the law on YouTube than support for it, though there is a fierce debate raging in the comments under most of these videos.)

Republicans erred in including those emergency responders, argues Thomas Suddes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, because their concerns are obscuring the fact that the majority of spending on state worries goes instead to school boards and other public sector workers.

Agreed, the bill may be a blunderbuss when a Derringer would have done. Agreed, too, that by potentially limiting unions' political power, SB 5 -- to GOP insiders -- is a neat "two-fer." But the issue is spending -- or would be, if Republicans hadn't let their enemies define the debate.

The unions aren't letting up. The Fraternal Order of Police has top-ranking officials in Ohio this weekend, trying to reverse a law that they are worried could become a model for other states seeking to scale back both union pay and union power. Their message, don't knock the unions; it's the politicians you should blame.

"We're concerned about the trend but we see Ohio as kind of the bellwether," FOP Executive Director Jim Pasco told the Associated Press. "We see a real opportunity for public safety and the voting public to reject this effort to endanger public safety in order to make up for past fiscal mismanagement by elected officials."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.