ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
We've been hearing for some time about Republican efforts in Wisconsin to balance the state's books. They want to do it, in part, with big concessions from public employee unions, including a clamp down on collective bargaining rights. Well, the first state this year to curb the power of state unions may not be Wisconsin at all, but Ohio.
Karen Kasler of Ohio Public Radio reports that a bill has passed the Senate there and hearings begin in the House tomorrow.
KAREN KASLER: You've heard a lot about collective bargaining for government workers lately, chants from thousands of angry unionized workers surrounding the capitol.
Unidentified Group: Hey, hey, ho, ho, (unintelligible). Hey, hey...
KASLER: Add to that, the urgent pleas of lawmakers, like Republican State Senator Shannon Jones.
State Senator SHANNON JONES (Republican, Ohio): If we fail to take action, many of our state and local governments will have no other option but mass layoffs.
KASLER: Now, let's add the voice of a lawmaker who's furious about proposed changes for collective bargaining for state workers.
State Senator TIM GRENDELL (Republican, Ohio): It is a crime against the people of Ohio. It is a crime against the taxpayers of Ohio. It's a crime against my grandchildren and the future of Ohio.
KASLER: Now, that may sound like the standard Democratic response. But here in Ohio, it's Senator Tim Grendell making it, and he's a conservative Republican. Grendell and five other Republican senators voted against the bill last week and against their own party leaders and Ohio's new Governor John Kasich.
Kasich is a former congressman and Wall Street executive. And like Scott Walker, his counterpart in Wisconsin, Kasich has been leading the charge to dramatically limit the power of government workers unions. Under this bill, they'd be able to bargain collectively for wages, but little else. Even before he was sworn in, Kasich was not shy about going after public worker unions.
Governor JOHN KASICH (Republican, Ohio): My personal philosophy is I don't like public employees striking, okay? I mean, they've got good jobs, they've got a high pay, they've got good benefits, a great retirement. What are they striking for?
KASLER: John Kasich led the Republican wave that swept over Ohio last fall, putting the Senate and House and every statewide office on the ballot firmly in Republican control. But even though Republicans dominate Democrats in the Ohio Senate by a two-to-one margin, the controversial bill squeaked by last week by only one vote. That may be because this bill hits all unionized public workers: teachers, prison guards, social workers, nurses and other employees, including law enforcement and firefighters.
Benjamin Sachs specializes in labor issues at Harvard University, and he's been following the collective bargaining bills in both states.
Professor BENJAMIN SACHS (Harvard Law School): The opposition among the Republican Party in Ohio, which we're not seeing in Wisconsin, may well have to do with the fact that police and fire are not exempted in Ohio and are in Wisconsin.
KASLER: But it's unlikely that opposition will be able to derail this bill.
There's also the deficit. Ohio's looming two-year budget deficit could be as high as $8 billion. While the state's Office of Collective Bargaining says the legislation could save the state and local communities more than a billion dollars, others reject those findings, saying the savings would be far less.
Either way, the biggest single group in Ohio to be affected by this legislation would be the 150,000 teachers and other employees in the state's public school systems. And that may be by design.
Richard Vedder is a professor of economics at Ohio University.
Professor RICHARD VEDDER (Economics, Ohio University): Neither the governor in Wisconsin nor in Ohio have a particular love for teachers unions.
KASLER: Kasich has certainly made no secret of his irritation with teachers unions. They supported his opponent and campaigned against him. And since Ohio's collective bargaining bill was introduced, Kasich has repeatedly defended it.
Gov. KASICH: Change is really, really hard. You know, it's just difficult. And change sometimes brings about fear, and fear brings about anger. It's just the way life is.
KASLER: Republicans have more than enough votes to pass the bill in the House, and there's no possibility Democrats can slow it down by not showing up to vote. The bill is expected to zip through and be signed by Governor Kasich in the next few weeks.
But voters will likely have the final say. Union groups plan to put the issue on the ballot this fall.
For NPR News, I'm Karen Kasler in Columbus.
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