Unrest Boils Over Ohio Collective Bargaining Law

Correction Nov. 7, 2011

A previous introduction to this story incorrectly implied that a "Yes" vote would overturn the law. In fact, a "Yes" vote affirms the law.

Ohioans will go to the polls on Tuesday, and their votes could overturn a controversial law that limits collective bargaining rights for public employees. The original law was signed by the Buckeye State's Republican Gov. John Kasich earlier this year. Host Michel Martin discusses the referendum with Jason Johnson, professor of political science at Ohio's Hiram College.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: We want to turn our focus now to an issue for voters in the key battleground state of Ohio. Tomorrow, voters there will have their say on a referendum that would overturn a controversial 2011 law that limited collective bargaining rights for public employees, and also would require those employees to contribute more for their health and retirement benefits. The original bill was pushed through by then newly-elected Republican Governor John Kasich and adopted by the Republican dominated general assembly.

But now, unions and their supporters are fighting back with a referendum that would repeal those limits. It's known as Issue 2 on the Ohio ballot. It's being closely watched around the country.

Joining us to talk about all this is Jason Johnson, professor of political science at Ohio's Hiram College. He's also author of the book, "Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell." Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

JASON JOHNSON: Always glad to be here.

MARTIN: Before we take a look at the referendum itself, why is there so much interest in this outside of Ohio?

JOHNSON: Because everybody and their uncle wants to find out if Ohio is really going to be in play in 2012. You know, Obama pulled the state off in 2008. Mitt Romney thinks he can get it this time and so this is seen as sort of a rough run. If the Republicans manage to do pretty well in this referendum, even if they lose, they'll be happy if the Democrats get a huge success. They think it's going to translate to 2012.

MARTIN: And the law in question bans strikes by public employees. It required workers to increase their contributions to retirement and health care coverage. It eliminated many seniority rights. You know, unlike this measure in Wisconsin that has also gotten a lot of attention, Wisconsin exempted public safety workers. In Ohio, as I understand it, everybody was included.

But is there a group that's been more affected than others and is thus more vocal about it than others?

JOHNSON: You know, academics and teachers are much more affected. I mean, there's a stipulation in this new law that says that, if you are, say, you know, you're department's representative to the faculty or to the administration, you're now considered management and you can't unionize. I mean, there's a lot more onerous rules on people who actually teach in the state than public safety workers. So it's bad for everybody, but it's a lot worse for educators.

MARTIN: Are you affected by it? You, personally?

JOHNSON: I'm not affected by it because I work at a private institution, but you know, what happens at public institutions affects private faculty, as well.

MARTIN: So are those groups the most active in pressing for the repeal or is there general discontent among those covered by it?

JOHNSON: There's general discontent and this, from the political standpoint, is the real challenge that John Kasich faces. He has managed to come up with a bill that has caused police officers and firemen to actually work with teachers and EMTs and these are groups that usually don't work together. And so by passing this bill or attempting to pass this bill, he's created this brand new coalition that might be a problem for him and/or Mitt Romney next year in Ohio.

MARTIN: Now, you've noted that teachers and academics are particularly affected by this and I did want to ask if race is part of the conversation, as well, given that we know that people of color tend to be more likely to work for public sector entities than other groups do. So has race become part of the conversation, as well?

JOHNSON: Oh, in a massive way, in a massive way. And what's interesting is the mobilization in the African-American community is pretty huge. The advertisements on African-American radio stations, the number of ads featuring, you know, black cops and, you know, Hispanic school teachers, etc., etc.

This has been a coalition of everyone who's a state employee, but minority voters are particularly incensed about this law because, really, you know, state employment is one of the best ways for minorities to actually get ahead and move from the working to the middle class. So this has really galvanized the black community.

MARTIN: Now, did the governor expect this level of opposition in those who supported him? I mean, he campaigned, as I recall, promising to deal with Ohio's budget shortfall, deal with the finances of the state and take a pretty strong stance. I think he was pretty clear that he was going to take a pretty strong stance in trying to curtail collective bargaining rights as he was campaigning. Is he surprised by the level of pushback he's getting?

JOHNSON: I think he's surprised by how much it looks like this bill is going to fail, and I think he's surprised by the level and the intensity of the coalitions that have been created. You know, and the fact of the matter is - look, John Kasich's biggest mistake - it's not necessarily the policy. We can have arguments back and forth as to whether Senate Bill 5 is good or bad, but he has failed to explain to most people in the public how it really saves money.

And so I think, you know, his argument was, look, I'm going to save all this cash and people should love me for it, but instead, people are mad and he doesn't really know what to do.

MARTIN: What are the polls showing? As I understand it, the polls are showing significant support for rescinding the law, but as I also understand it, there are mixed feelings about what exactly needs to change. For example, this Quinnipiac poll that I'm looking at showed that voters strongly support parts of the law, like requiring workers to contribute at least a minimum amount to their retirement and health care costs. But voters, as you've pointed out, hate other elements.

JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

JOHNSON: Yeah. This is what happened about six weeks ago. John Kasich saw the writing on the wall and said, OK, I'm going to lose. And so he actually went to We Are Ohio and said, look, if you promise to take back this repeal referendum, I'll go back to the drawing board and we can come up with a new bill. But We Are Ohio, which is actually full of a lot of former workers for Ted Strickland, said, no. It's too bad. You know, we're a speeding train on this issue.

I think a lot of people in Ohio feel that we have to do something about the budget problems here, but this is sort of taking a meat cleaver to cutting off your fingernails here and it doesn't have to be as draconian as what John Kasich has sort of suggested right now.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting to note, though, that two of the major newspapers in the state, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Columbus Dispatch, both endorsed the original law.

JOHNSON: Uh-huh. Well, you know, it's not surprising. One, for many people in the state, the Cleveland Plain Dealer is considered to be a slightly more conservative newspaper. It certainly has a much older readership and people who are fiscal hawks say we have to do something. The state of Ohio is losing population. The state of Ohio has a horrible brain drain over the last 10 years. The state of Ohio is having difficulty. Two years ago, there were bills being passed in the State House that might have closed all public libraries, so something has to be done.

And there are some newspapers and some conservative Democrats who say, look, we might have to do something radical here to save this state.

MARTIN: Jason Johnson is a professor of political science at Hiram College. He's also a politics editor at The Source magazine and author of the book, "Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell." He was kind enough to join us from member station WCPN in Cleveland.

Jason Johnson, thank you so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Anytime.

MARTIN: Just ahead, you probably take the blue in your favorite pair of jeans for granted, but once, it was prized by slave traders, spiritual leaders, royalty and rag traders.

Also, Catherine McKinley is with us to tell us the story of indigo, the color that seduced the world. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Another video went viral last week. Sadly, this one wasn't about a cute kitten. It's a video of a Texas family law judge whipping his then teenage daughter with a belt. Now 23, Hillary Adams says she just wants him to get help.

HILLARY ADAMS: I regret that it's my own father, but at the same time, so many people are telling me that I did the right thing.

MARTIN: We'll ask our regular panel of moms about this next time on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I'll talk about two tragic news stories and what we don't seem to want to talk about. That's in my weekly Can I Just Tell You commentary.

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