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Union Changes Make Headway In Ohio

Protesters opposed to state Senate Bill 5, which would restrict the bargaining rights of public workers in Ohio, gather at the statehouse in Columbus last month.
Jay LaPrete
Protesters opposed to state Senate Bill 5, which would restrict the bargaining rights of public workers in Ohio, gather at the statehouse in Columbus last month.

Ohio, not Wisconsin, could be the first state to dramatically curb the power of state workers unions this year.

The Ohio Senate last week passed a bill to restrict government workers unions to bargain collectively for wages but little else. Hearings on the bill start in the House on Tuesday.

Six Republicans joined Democrats in voting against it — and against GOP leaders and Ohio's new Gov. John Kasich (R). Kasich is a former congressman and Wall Street executive, and like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Kasich has been leading the charge to dramatically limit the power of government workers unions in Ohio. Even before he was sworn in, Kasich wasn't shy about going after public worker unions.

"My personal philosophy is I don't like public employees striking. They've got good jobs, they've got high pay, they've got good benefits, a great retirement — what are they striking for?" Kasich says.

Kasich led the Republican wave that swept over Ohio, 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 2-1 margin, the bill squeaked through the Senate by only one vote. That may be because the proposal hits all unionized public workers — teachers, prison guards, social workers, nurses and other workers, including law enforcement and firefighters.

Benjamin Sachs, who specializes in labor issues at Harvard University, has been following the collective bargaining bills in both states.

"The opposition that we're seeing 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," Sachs says.

'It's Just The Way Life Is'

But it's unlikely that opposition will be able to derail the 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 state and local communities more than $1 billion, 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.

"Neither the governor in Wisconsin nor in Ohio have a particular love for teachers unions," says Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University.

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.

"Change is really, really hard. It's just difficult. And change sometimes brings about fear, and fear brings about anger. It's just the way life is," Kasich says.

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 Kasich in the next few weeks. But voters are likely to have the final say: Union groups plan to put the issue on the ballot this fall.

Copyright 2020 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.

Karen Kasler