MARCH 3, 2011 By KRIS MAHER And AMY MERRICK
Ohio state senators narrowly approved a bill that would prohibit public-employee unions representing 400,000 state and local workers from bargaining over health benefits and pensions, while also eliminating the right to strike.
Supporters and opponents of Senate Bill 5 demonstrated outside the Ohio Statehouse on Wednesday.
While national attention has focused for weeks on a similar battle in Wisconsin, the vote, by 17-16 in Ohio’s Republican-controlled Senate, virtually ensured that the Buckeye State will become the first to strip collective-bargaining rights from public employees as states grapple with recent gaping budget deficits.
The move is especially significant because Ohio is larger than Wisconsin, and like its fellow Midwestern state, is both a stronghold of public-sector labor unions and a swing state politically.
The bill now goes to the House, where the Republicans have a 59-40 majority. If approved, as expected, it will move for signature to Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who supports the bill.
Mr. Kasich believes it would help local governments control labor costs, spokesman Rob Nichols said.
Ohio’s labor leaders, while noting the narrow passage in the Senate, weren’t optimistic about stopping the bill in the House.
“We’re expecting it to pass,” said Jason Perlman, a spokesman for the Ohio AFL-CIO. But, he added, “We are hopeful those in the Ohio House will see this bill is nothing more than an attack on the middle class.”
Republican lawmakers say worker pay and benefit cuts are needed to offset projected budget shortfalls. “If we’re going to grow in Ohio, we cannot raise taxes,” Republican state Sen. Keith Faber said Wednesday.
William Batchelder, Republican Speaker of the Ohio House, said a House committee will begin holding extensive hearings on the bill next week. “I think the bill has a good chance of passing. What form it will take I would have to say will be unclear,” he said.
U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis criticized the moves in Ohio and other states to curtail bargaining rights. “Some state leaders have gone too far,” Ms. Solis said Wednesday night, in a conference call with thousands of activists from the Communications Workers of America. “Budget sacrifices are one thing, but demanding workers give up their rights as union members is another.”
The Senate approval in Ohio of the controversial measure could send a sweeping message across the industrial heartland and in states with relatively high union density that the clout held by organized labor has weakened. Multiday protests by teachers and firefighters on the steps of state capitol buildings haven’t necessarily swayed Republican lawmakers who see labor contracts as expensive and inflexible.
Protests have been held over the past two weeks in state capitals across the country to protest proposed legislation to limit rights of public and private sector unions. The protests were sparked more than two weeks ago when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker presented his budget repair bill that included stripping unions of the right to bargain over pension and health care contributions. While the unions would retain the right to collective bargaining over pay, the bill would also cap wage increases to the rate of inflation.
In Indiana, Republican lawmakers proposed a right-to-work bill that would have allowed private-sector workers to opt out of joining unions, a move that prompted House Democrats to flee the state to avoid a vote.
All three of those states have a relatively large union presence. Ohio has 655,000 union members, both public and private, representing 13.7% of its workers. In Wisconsin, 355,000, or 14.2%, of its public and private workers belong to unions; in Indiana, 279,000, or 10.9%, of its workers belong to public or private unions.
In Ohio, Republicans have a 23-10 majority in the Ohio Senate, but six broke with GOP leaders and opposed the bill. “It was as close as it could be,” said Joe Schiavoni, the ranking Democrat on the Senate insurance, commerce and labor committee. He said he hoped House Republicans would “make sweeping changes if not throw the whole bill out and start all over.”
Union officials have conducted a coordinated effort to try to block bills in Wisconsin and Ohio that would curtail collective bargaining rights for public workers, and right-to-work legislation introduced in 13 states, including New Hampshire and Missouri. Those bills would allow workers in the private sector to opt out of paying dues or belonging to a union. Such legislation threatens the unions’ funding and their political clout heading into the 2012 elections.
Taking away collective bargaining rights for state public employees has occurred before. In 2005, Republican Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed an executive order ending those rights for state workers.
In Wisconsin, Republican state senators on Wednesday passed a resolution fining 14 Democrats who left the state Feb. 17 to prevent a vote on Republican Gov. Walker’s bill restricting public employees’ collective-bargaining rights. The vote on the resolution didn’t require a quorum, unlike the budget bill that would curb bargaining.
The Wisconsin Democrats, who are in Illinois, will be fined $100 a day for their absence when the Senate is in session. Several of the Democrats went to Kenosha, Wis., Monday to meet with Republican Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said Fitzgerald spokesman Andrew Welhouse. But the fines seemed to set back efforts to break the impasse.
“Sen. Fitzgerald’s schoolyard-bully tactics aren’t productive to resolving the serious issues at stake,” Democratic Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller said in a statement. “His actions today undermine Democrats’ ability to have a professional relationship with him.”
Mr. Walker says his bill’s restrictions on bargaining rights, and a provision requiring employees to contribute more of their take-home pay toward pensions and health insurance, could be used to offset major cuts to school districts and local governments in the two-year budget he presented Tuesday.
Unions say the benefit changes proposed for workers amount to an average 8% pay cut. Unions representing state workers have agreed to the governor’s proposed financial concessions.
On Wednesday in Indiana, B. Patrick Bauer, the Democratic House minority leader, traveled to Indianapolis and met with Republican House leader Brian Bosma for about an hour to discuss concerns the Democratic caucus has with several bills that would restrict union rights. Mr. Bauer and other House Democrats fled to Illinois last week to halt those measures.
“No negotiations took place,” said Tory Flynn, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bosma. “The speaker needs the Democrats to return to the statehouse to do their jobs.”