ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Earlier this year, Wisconsin got lots of attention for passing a law that curbs the power of public employee unions. Soon after, Ohio legislators went even further. The Ohio law has the backing of Tea Party activists and business advocates. But its critics have forced a referendum, and Ohio voters are about to decide its fate next week.
Bill Cohen of Ohio Public Radio reports.
BILL COHEN, BYLINE: After Republican John Kasich was elected governor last November, he said special interests better suck it up and get on his legislative bus.
GOVERNOR JOHN KASICH: You get on the bus or we're going to run you over.
COHEN: It soon became clear that Kasich viewed public employee unions as a special interest costing government too much money. He and Republican lawmakers here 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. Thousands of protestors flocked to the capitol.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: We want respect. We want respect.
COHEN: At one point, hundreds of Tea Party activists showed up to support Senate Bill 5, but they were outnumbered.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Yes on 5. Yes on 5.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Kill this bill. Kill this bill.
COHEN: 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 November 8th 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. Linda Woggon heads the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.
LINDA WOGGON: When we lower taxes, people are better off and businesses can make more investments. When they make more investments in our economy, we'll have a booming economy.
COHEN: But union workers say they've already done enough to hold down labor costs, citing a billion dollars in pay freezes and concessions. Joan Hunter works as a prison guard.
JOAN HUNTER: We have taken five stops in the last nine years. So, we're giving back. We're doing our part. You're not going to fix Ohio's budget just cutting. There has to be a middle ground.
COHEN: Unions especially hate one provision they say kills their negotiating power. It says 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.
PHIL HAYES: Tails, I win. Heads, you lose. That's what it is. That's not bargaining. That's begging.
COHEN: Butt Governor John Kasich says the managers are the taxpayers.
KASICH: Let the city council determine what the city can afford, because they're the ones that have to manage the city.
COHEN: Republican State Senator Shannon Jones wrote the new law and argues, if pay and benefits can be held down, schools and cities can avoid cutbacks.
STATE SENATOR SHANNON JONES: I cannot promise that if this bill passes it will keep every government worker employed. But I can promise that if we fail to take action, many of our state and local governments will have no other option but mass layoffs.
COHEN: But the law's critics stress a provision banning unions from negotiating on staffing. That leads to this vote no radio ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Nine-one-one, what's your emergency?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: There's an intruder in my house.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Sir, both deputies on duty are responding to a fatal crash on the other side of the county. We'll be there as soon as possible.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How soon?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It might be 15 or 20 minutes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: This may happen to you.
COHEN: 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 Governor John Kasich with a 36 percent approval rating.
Veteran union lawyer Herschel Sigall says when Kasich took on the unions, he actually did them a favor.
HERSCHEL SIGALL: We were comatose, nearly dead, on life support. And the governor and this legislature has energized labor throughout the state.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
COHEN: Kasich's bus may soon stall, but Republicans here could try to restart it. They hint, even if voters do repeal this collective bargaining law as a whole, there are popular parts legislators could pass again.
For NPR News, I'm Bill Cohen in Columbus.