Voters May Decide Outcome of Ohio Collective Bargaining Battle

Published April 25, 2011

After a rancorous legislative debate which included the largest public protests Ohio had experienced in years, labor unions and allied elected officials plan to go to the voters to try overturning the first major overhaul of the state’s nearly 30-year-old collective bargaining law.

After winning the November election, Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, said collective bargaining reform would play a part in his plan to reinvigorate the staggering Ohio economy. Republican leadership in both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly, including a newly installed House majority, agreed with Kasich, especially in the face of an anticipated $8 billion budget hole.

At the end of March they passed Senate Bill 5 to reform collective bargaining. SB 5 is expected to affect more than 350,000 public sector union workers in Ohio.

No Forced Dues Payments
The bill eliminates so-called “fair share” payments from nonunion government workers who have been compelled to pay money to the unions. It retains a ban on public union strikes, prevents unions from bargaining for employee benefits, and replaces automatic pay raises for public employees with a merit-pay system.

The bill also makes decertifying a union easier, by allowing the process to move forward if 30 percent of union members to file for a decertification election. It also ends payroll deduction for union dues, meaning union members will pay their dues directly to the union.

The bill also spells the end of binding arbitration and replaces it with a system in which voters in a local community can vote on any labor contracts that would result in increased taxes.

Repeal Effort Underway
Even before Kasich signed the legislation, the Ohio Democratic Party was directing visitors to its Web site to sign up and volunteer to work to repeal SB 5. A competing Web site was also immediately put up by those supporting the measure.

For the repeal referendum to qualify for this November’s ballot, SB 5 opponents will have to collect 231,000 valid signatures within 90 days of the governor’s signing of the bill. If they are successful in doing so, the bill will not become effective until after the the election decides on its retention.

On March 30, SB 5 cleared the House by a 53-44 vote, with five Republicans joining all Democrats in opposition. The entire debate was punctuated by numerous boos and hisses from opponents gathered in both the House Chamber and the Statehouse Atrium. The disruption was so great that the chamber was cleared of visitors. On the way out, protestors shouted, “Shame on You!” “Vote Them Out!” and even “Ohio Hates You!”

Speaking to the crowd of opponents of the bill moments after it passed, House Democratic Leader Armond Budish (D- Beachwood) said, “We’ve just begun to fight, and we’re going to fight like hell.”

In contrast, Republican House Speaker William Batchelder (R- Medina) commented, “Today, this House has taken an unprecedented step toward public policy that respects all Ohioans, especially our taxpayers and our hard-working middle class.”

Later in the evening, the Senate concurred with the House changes to the legislation by the same 17-16 vote with which it had originally passed the bill.

‘One More Step in a March’
Kasich signed the bill on March 31, but he acknowledged the mood by commenting, “This is not particularly a happy day—it is one more step in a march to save Ohio.””

The action began a year ago when the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions pointed out collective bargaining agreements increase labor costs, especially when factoring in smaller employee contributions for health care and “gold-plated” retirement packages. Modifying the law would give elected officials the flexibility to contain costs and be fiscally prudent. The Buckeye Institute’s “Grand Bargain” report identified 12 policies legislators could implement to reduce the cost of government compensation packages.

The labor movement, Democrats, and union-funded progressive think tanks argued the collective bargaining system for state workers has worked well by largely avoiding strikes since its inception. They also asserted Ohio’s budget challenges stemmed from the national economic situation, not sweetheart deals for government workers, and claimed the proposed reforms were really only a fig leaf covering an effort to “bust unions.”

The action shifted into high gear on February 1 when State Senator Shannon Jones (R- Springboro) introduced SB 5.

“This bill gives power back to the taxpayers and restores flexibility to the management of their hard-earned dollars,” Jones said in a statement.
Demonstrations in Capitol
Although no state legislators fled the state to stop action on the bill, as in Wisconsin and Indiana, unions did organize public demonstrations at the Statehouse in Columbus. Though none equaled the massive numbers seen in Wisconsin, they were big by Ohio standards, with one reaching 8,500 participants.

On March 2 the Ohio Senate had voted an earlier version of the bill out of the chamber by a razor-thin margin of 17-16. Even before the tight vote, the Senate leadership had to replace two members on committees to get the bill to the floor. Six Republican senators joined all 10 Democrats in voting against the measure.

The debate continued for most of March in the Ohio House of Representatives and resulted in substantial changes in the bill.

Greg R. Lawson ([email protected]) is statehouse liaison and policy analyst at The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Columbus, Ohio.