12:12pm

Mon October 31, 2011
Politics

Ohio Voters To Decide Union Law's Fate

Earlier this year, Wisconsin received lots of attention after passing a law slashing the power of public employee unions.

But soon after, Ohio legislators went even further.

In March, Gov. John Kasich and Republican lawmakers pushed a sweeping plan to slash union negotiating clout. It would ban strikes by all of Ohio's 350,000 government workers, require all public employees to pay at least 15 percent of their health care premiums, and use merit to decide pay and layoffs.

Now, Ohio is getting attention because voters there will decide that law's fate on Nov. 8.

It's backed by Tea Party activists and business advocates, but its foes have forced a referendum.

'There Has To Be A Middle Ground'

After Kasich was elected governor last November, he said special interests better suck it up and get on his legislative bus: "You get on the bus, or we're gonna run you over."

It soon became clear that Kasich viewed public employee unions as a special interest costing government too much money.

When he and Republican lawmakers pushed Senate Bill 5, thousands of protesters flocked to the state Capitol, chanting, "We want respect." At one point, hundreds of Tea Party activists showed up to support the bill, but they were outnumbered.

Republicans garnered just enough votes to pass the contentious bill. That's when unions and their Democratic allies did an end run. They needed 231,000 valid petition signatures to block the law and put it on the Nov. 8 ballot. Instead, they got a whopping 900,000.

The law's backers argue it will help cities and schools hold down labor costs, and a rising economic tide will lift all boats.

"When we lower taxes, people are better off and businesses can make more investments," says Linda Woggon with the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. "When they make more investments in our economy, we'll have a booming economy."

But union workers say they've already done enough to hold down labor costs, citing a billion dollars in pay freezes and concessions.

"We have taken five pay stops in the past nine years, so we're giving back," says Joan Hunter, who works as a prison guard. "We're doing our part. You're not going to fix Ohio's budget just cutting. There has to be a middle ground."

Contentious Provisions

Unions especially hate one provision they say kills their negotiating power. It says that in long-running disputes, labor and management submit their last best offers, and then management picks one.

Columbus teacher Phil Hayes says it's a rigged deal.

"Tails I win, heads you lose. That's what it is. That's not bargaining, that's begging," he says.

But Gov. Kasich says the managers are the taxpayers.

"Let the city council determine what the city can afford, because they're the ones who have to manage the city," he says.

Republican state Sen. Shannon Jones wrote the new law and argues that if pay and benefits can be held down, schools and cities can avoid cutbacks.

"I cannot promise that if this bill passes that it will keep every government worker employed," she says. "But I can promise if we fail to take action, many of our state and local governments will have no other option but mass layoffs."

But the law's critics stress a provision banning unions from negotiating on staffing.

Much of this debate compares the pay and benefits of government workers with those in the private sector. Defenders of the law say some public workers get sweeter deals on health care, pensions and sick leave. Critics counter with government figures showing there's virtually no difference in the total compensation packages.

One part of the new law declares union contracts can no longer require all workers to pay dues. Union leaders say since that wouldn't save government any money, it shows the real intent is to cripple unions and their allies.

Millions of dollars are pouring into Ohio as the vote nears. Recent polls show the "vote no" side with a big lead, and Kasich with a 36 percent approval rating.

Veteran union lawyer Herschel Sigall says that when Kasich took on the unions, he actually did them a favor.

"We were comatose, nearly dead, on life support, and the governor and this legislature has energized labor throughout the state," Sigall says.

Kasich's bus may soon stall, but Republicans here could try to restart it. They hint that even if voters do repeal this collective bargaining law as a whole, there are popular parts legislators could pass again.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.