COLUMBUS, Ohio — Leaders of the nation's largest law enforcement union are visiting Ohio amid the ballot fight over the state's collective bargaining overhaul, rallying members who hope to overturn the law that limits bargaining for more than 350,000 public workers.
The national president and secretary of the politically influential Fraternal Order of Police are slated to be in Ohio this weekend to meet with FOP members lobbying against the law signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich in March. A third person from the FOP's executive board is expected to visit Ohio later this month.
Unlike Wisconsin's law curbing union rights, the Ohio measure includes police and firefighters, and their unions say a vote to repeal it would send a message to GOP lawmakers and leaders who have curbed collective bargaining rights in several states.
"We're concerned about the trend but we see Ohio as kind of the bellwether," FOP Executive Director Jim Pasco said. "We see a real opportunity for public safety and the voting public to reject this effort to endanger public safety in order to make up for past fiscal mismanagement by elected officials."
The FOP has mustered its troops against measures targeting union rights in Wisconsin and elsewhere, but its efforts in Ohio have reached a new level through canvassing and fundraising. Officials say the organization has contributed more money to the fight over the Ohio measure than to any state labor clash in its nearly century-long history, though they wouldn't specify how much has been spent.
The FOP represents more than 330,000 law enforcement officers, including about 25,000 in Ohio, where it has been active in the We Are Ohio coalition that fought to get the bargaining law on the fall ballot.
Among other changes, the law bans public worker strikes and limits the collective bargaining abilities of teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees. Workers could negotiate on wages, but not on their pension or health care benefits.
Kasich had characterized the law as a way to help the state plug a multibillion-dollar budget hole. Supporters contend it gives cash-strapped local governments more flexibility to manage budgets and control costs, aside from laying off workers, cutting services or raising taxes.
A vote to keep the law would make it easier for cities to keep firefighters and police officers working, said Connie Wehrkamp, a spokesman for Building a Better Ohio, a Republican- and business-backed group seeking voter approval of the law.
But police and firefighters argue it could negatively affect public safety by restricting their ability to negotiate on issues such as staffing levels.
The Ohio FOP, which has provided financial support and coveted endorsements for candidates from both major political parties, already has brandished its political clout in the collective bargaining fight. It withdrew an endorsement of the measure's sponsor, GOP state Sen. Shannon Jones of Springboro. The political contribution arms of local and state FOP groups also have donated at least $3,250 to committees representing two Republicans who opposed the bill.
When the governor and fellow Republicans staged a meeting intended to draw opponents of the law to negotiate a possible compromise in August, the FOP was left off the list of major unions named on placards at an empty table. But the police group wants to make sure its members' voices are heard in the ballot fight and at the bargaining table.
Chuck Canterbury, the FOP's national president, said what happens in Ohio has national ramifications.
"The whole country's watching Ohio," said Canterbury, who began his five-day visit to the state by meeting with more than 200 FOP members in Columbus on Thursday. He's also visiting Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dayton and Strongsville.
Meanwhile, supporters of the law were set to hear from another big name as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was scheduled to speak Friday at a pancake breakfast in Mason in southwest Ohio.
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Associated Press writer Andy Brownfield in Columbus contributed to this report.