By STEVEN GREENHOUSE – Published: March 31, 2011
After Wisconsin’s labor battle seized the nation’s attention, after nearly 100,000 people rallied in Madison to protest a bill to curb public-sector collective bargaining, the Ohio legislature has, with far less fanfare, enacted a bill perhaps even tougher on unions.
It is perhaps surprising that Ohio faced more limited public demonstrations considering that its bill, which Gov. John R. Kasich signed Thursday, goes further than Wisconsin’s in several important ways.
While both laws severely limit public employees’ ability to bargain collectively — they both prohibit any bargaining over health coverage and pensions — the Ohio law largely eliminates bargaining for the police and firefighters. Wisconsin’s law leaves those two groups’ bargaining rights untouched. Ohio’s law also gives city councils and school boards a free hand to unilaterally impose their side’s final contract offer when management and union fail to reach a settlement.
Notwithstanding the differences in legislation, the push by those states’ Republican governors and Republican-dominated legislatures points to a pendulum swing away from what many unions and Democrats see as a fundamental right for public employees: the right to bargain over wages and benefits.
Moreover, at a time of huge budget deficits and of Republican dominance in many states, including states like Ohio and Wisconsin where unions once had swaggering power, the pendulum has swung toward the taxpayer instead of the government workers paid by the taxpayer. And after five decades in which public-sector unions have grown far stronger in membership and political power, Mr. Kasich and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin seem intent on checking their rise.
State Senator Shannon Jones, a Republican and chief sponsor of the Ohio law, said curbing collective bargaining made sense when so many states, cities, counties and school districts faced daunting budget deficits. She said the law would help public employers hold down compensation costs, especially soaring health and pension costs, as a way to minimize any layoffs and reductions in public services, whether police patrols or garbage collections.
“The economy has changed fundamentally,” Ms. Jones said. “Not only families and business have to change to adapt to tougher economic circumstances, but governments have to adapt, too.”
Many Democrats and labor leaders said the law was an effort to balance state and local budgets on the backs of Ohio’s 360,000 public employees. They argue that the driving force behind the law was ideological and political. “It’s a politically motivated effort to weaken and destroy the unions that the leaders of the Republican Party perceive as their biggest political opponents,” said William Leibensperger, vice president of the Ohio Education Association, which represents 130,000 teachers and other school employees.
William Even, an economics professor at Miami University of Ohio, said the law resulted from another difference between the parties. “There’s a definite philosophical disagreement between the Republicans and Democrats about what unions do to the efficiency of government operations and whether unions have led to overcompensation for public workers.”
When the Ohio Senate approved the bill Wednesday night, 17 to 16, all 17 supporters were Republicans, and when the Ohio House passed it earlier Wednesday, 53 to 44, all of the supporters were Republicans.
In Ohio, as in Wisconsin, mayors, school superintendents and county executives are already thinking through how to use the legislation to hold down public employees’ raises and health costs. At the same time, in Ohio, as in Wisconsin, Democrats and union members are maneuvering to overturn the legislation.
In Ohio, union leaders plan to dispatch rank-and-file members around the state to collect signatures to trigger a referendum. And in Wisconsin — in addition to a lawsuit that has resulted in a court order temporarily suspending the anti-union law for violating the open meetings act — unions have collected tens of thousands of signatures to hold recall elections aimed at ousting a half-dozen Republican state senators, as a first step to repeal the law.
Ohio political and union leaders say there were fewer protests than in Wisconsin because Governor Walker moved first, making him and Madison a lighting rod. Moreover, Madison has a famously liberal university and Wisconsin was the home of the progressive movement. Still, Ohio unions boast that their biggest rally in Columbus attracted 20,000, just a fraction of Madison’s weekly Saturday rallies.
The Wisconsin law is in ways tougher toward unions — it bars any public employer from deducting workers’ dues from their paychecks and forwarding it to union treasuries. It is also requires a vote each year to determine whether government workers want to keep their union.
Both states would let government employees opt out of paying any union dues or fees.
The Wisconsin law generally limits raises to the Consumer Price Index, although under the Ohio legislation if a public employer accepts the union’s contract offer and if that forces a community to raise taxes to pay for it, then voters can overturn the contract through a referendum.
“It’s pretty much evisceration of collective bargaining in both states,” said James Brudney, an Ohio State law professor.
Louis W. Blessing, a Republican House member who represents Cincinnati, said his party had pushed for the law at the behest of taxpayers who feel public unions have become too powerful, their pensions too generous. “We’re trying to level the playing field between the two parties, between the taxpayer and the unions,” he said. But Mr. Blessing acknowledged that political motivations also came into play. “It’s clear the unions support the Democrats,” he said. “I’m sure that made it easier to pass.”
Governor Kasich has repeatedly said the law would give communities the tools they need to hold down labor costs to help reduce layoffs. For instance, Ohio’s office of collective bargaining estimates that replacing statutory step pay increases with merit pay will save the state $75 million a year and local governments $393 million a year.
Armond Budish, the Ohio House Democratic leader, said, “This bill is an effort to camouflage the pain that the governor’s huge budget cuts are going to cause.”