Ohio bargaining limits prevail, unions vow fight

By Julie Carr Smyth

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, March 31 2011 10:00 a.m. MDT

Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder (R-Medina) watches a Senate Bill 5 video produced by the Governor's office during a news conference Wednesday, March 30, 2011, in Columbus, Ohio.

Jay LaPrete, Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio lawmakers have had their chance to vote on a bill limiting collective bargaining rights for 350,000 public workers across the state. Next will be the public's turn.

Even before the contentious Senate Bill 5 — in some ways tougher than Wisconsin's — had cleared the Legislature late Wednesday, unions and Democrats in this once-proud labor stronghold vowed to put it on November's ballot as a referendum.

"O-H-I-O! S.B. 5 has got to go!" protesters chanted ahead of a final Senate vote of 17-16 that sent the bill to Gov. John Kasich, who planned to sign it Thursday. The vote followed a day filled with Statehouse demonstrations by about 750 people, who raucously chanted and shouted throughout the process. After a House vote of 53-44, opponents spewed expletives at House members.

The vitriol wasn't limited to the Statehouse.

Leo Geiger, 34, a Republican who works as a sewer inspector for the city of Dayton, said he's "deathly afraid that this is going to affect me, my family and the entire state of Ohio in an incredibly negative way."

He believes the bill is political payback for unions' support of Democrats in November's election.

"I find this to be loathsome," he said from Dayton on Wednesday night. He didn't attend protests because he couldn't take the time off. "I find this to be disrespectful to Ohioans and disrespectful to the process of democracy."

The measure affects safety workers, teachers, nurses and a host of other government personnel. It allows unions to negotiate wages and certain working conditions but not health care, sick time or pension benefits. It gets rid of automatic pay increases, and replaces them with merit raises or performance pay. Workers would also be banned from striking.

A ballot challenge would stall implementation of the law that Republicans championed as vital to Ohio's economic future. Backers have 90 days after Kasich signs the bill to gather 231,148 valid signatures from at least half Ohio's 88 counties to get it on the fall ballot.

"Local government and taxpayers need control over their budgets. This bill, as amended and changed, is a bill that will give control back to the people who pay the bills," House Speaker Bill Batchelder said Wednesday.

Kasich has said his $55.5 billion, two-year state budget counts on unspecified savings from lifting union protections to fill an $8 billion hole.

During House debate, state Rep. Robert Hagan, a Democrat from Youngstown, questioned whether the bill was aimed at saving money.

"Don't ever lie to us and don't be hypocritical and don't dance around it as if it's finances, because you know what it is: It's to bust the union," Hagan told his fellow lawmakers.

Democratic state Sen. Charleta Tavares, a recent Columbus city councilwoman, called the bill "paternalistic, patronizing, disrespectful and condescending" to city leaders who balance their budgets annually, not every two years as Ohio does.

As she awaited the Senate vote, Pickerington teacher Patricia Kuhn-Morgan said educating kids is the best way to create jobs. She predicted Wednesday's votes will hurt GOP lawmakers on Election Day.

"I've spoken to a lot of educators who are typically straight-ticket Republicans that have said to me that they won't ever vote for another Republican because of how this bill's been pushed through and the democratic process has been abused," she said.

But Chris Littleton, who represents a coalition of tea party groups called the Ohio Liberty Council, disagreed. He said tea party backers who helped seal Republican victories last fall are all for the changes.

"We set making Ohio a right-to-work state and complete elimination of employee unions as a primary objective for 2011," he said. "So we would have liked to see it go even further, but we are definitely supportive of this measure."

Though protests were much larger in Wisconsin, Ohio unions claim they hold the hearts of a majority of voters in their political swing state. Republicans say polling indicates a high number of voters, though perhaps ones not as vocal as union supporters, favor the collective bargaining changes and would uphold the new law.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill this month eliminating most of state workers' collective bargaining rights. That measure exempts police officers and firefighters; Ohio's does not.

The Ohio bill has drawn thousands of demonstrators, prompted a visit from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and packed hearing rooms in the weeks before the Senate passed the earlier version of the measure. Its reception in the House was quieter, as unions resolved themselves to its approval and shifted their strategy to the fall ballot.

Democratic state Sen. Joe Schiavoni said the way the bill had been rushed through the legislative process without union input was unfair — but he said voters would have the last word.

At the ballot box, he said, "all Ohioans will get the opportunity to right the wrongs they committed in the last election, and, ladies and gentlemen, that is fair."

Associated Press writers Ann Sanner and JoAnne Viviano contributed to this report.

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