Effort To Repeal Ohio Bargaining Law Gains Ground

In Ohio, there's a bitter battle over a new collective bargaining law that Republicans pushed through, slashing the negotiating power of public employee unions. But the battlefield is totally different than Wisconsin's. While Wisconsin voters can recall only the politicians who passed the law, Ohio voters can repeal the law itself in a referendum. In fact, the repeal forces, led by unions and minority Democrats, are way ahead in the polls.

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BILL COHEN, BYLINE: And I'm Bill Cohen in Ohio, where the issue is the much the same as in Wisconsin, but the battleground is different. Like Wisconsin, Ohio's new limits on public employee union power were prompted by a new Republican governor and GOP majority legislators. Governor John Kasich argued government must act more like business and stem rising labor costs so taxes can be cut to attract jobs.

GOVERNOR JOHN KASICH: If a company can't manage its costs, it usually goes bankrupt. But if a company can manage its costs, and if a state can manage its costs, and if local government can management its costs, we're going to be on the right footing. We can set the platform for economic growth.

COHEN: And while protests began in Wisconsin, soon after Ohio legislators passed new limits on union bargaining clout, thousands of government workers flocked to Ohio's capitol. At one point, there were so many, some were locked out.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

CROWD: Let us in, let us in, kill the bill.

COHEN: As in Wisconsin, Ohio public employees worry that a new law would decimate pay and benefits. JoAnn Johntony is a school custodian who heads a union that also represents cafeteria workers and bus drivers.

JOANN JOHNTONY: You know what? My workers make 8.99 an hour. You tell me how you raise a family on 8.99 an hour, and now you want to reduce it. You tell me that.

COHEN: Now, let's talk about the biggest difference between Wisconsin's and Ohio's fights with unions. In Wisconsin, voters can show their disdain for a law only by recalling the politicians who enacted it. In Ohio, it's the opposite. There's no recall. But there is the option of a referendum on the law itself, and that's just what unions and their allies have done here, gathering a record-breaking 900,000 valid petition signatures to put the law on the ballot so voters can kill it with a no vote. Critics of Ohio's law say it's even more stringent than Wisconsin's, because it says in long-running impasses both sides turn in their last best offers and then management gets to pick the winner.

DENNIS ECKART: It's kind of like being in a divorce with your husband, and you go into divorce court on the final day and you find out that your mother-in-law is the judge.

COHEN: That's former Democratic Congressman Dennis Eckart. But the law's author, Republican Senator Shannon Jones, argues that management must have the ultimate power.

STATE SENATOR SHANNON JONES: The idea is to put the taxpayer at the table.

COHEN: Backers of the law stress that some government workers have negotiated sweet deals private sector workers don't get. Republican Senator Keith Faber says those deals involve health care, sick leave and overtime.

STATE SENATOR KEITH FABER: Seven percent of Ohio's workers expect the other 93 percent to pay them benefits that are out of line of what those 93 percent are receiving.

COHEN: The law's critics respond by pointing to government studies showing overall compensation for public and private sector workers is about the same. And even without the new law, Ohio's public employees have given up $1 billion with recent pay freezes and concessions. Again, Dennis Eckart.

ECKART: Ninety percent of the contracts negotiated this year contain massive givebacks.

COHEN: Early polls show the vote-yes side here began way behind. But a simple TV ad proved somewhat effective, stressing one popular part of the law.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Issue two asks government employees to help by paying 10 percent toward their guaranteed pension and at least 15 percent toward their health insurance. With many families paying far more than that, asking government employees to chip in isn't asking a lot.

COHEN: Critics of the law, though, have had a powerful image to exploit - the faces and voices of police and firefighters. Unlike Wisconsin's collective bargaining changes, Ohio's do include safety forces, and that allows the law's critics to employ a casting director's dream.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Issue two makes the illegal for employees to negotiate for enough officers to do the job safely. So I may not have a partner to back me up.

COHEN: Now latest polls show a surge for the vote-no drive. As in Wisconsin, both sides here are spending millions of dollars - much of it outside money. But unlike in Wisconsin, in Ohio there's a good chance that voters will repeal tough new limits on union power. For NPR News, I'm Bill Cohen in Columbus.

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