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Ohio Senate panel approves union-rights bill, sending it to full Senate

Thousands of union supporters descended on the Ohio Statehouse on Tuesday to protest a proposal to dramatically curtail bargaining powers of government workers. Republican lawmakers in Ohio are hoping to advance the measure quickly, pushing Ohio to the forefront of states where efforts to curtail public-sector unions have met heavy resistance.

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Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 4, 2011; 8:47 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio - An Ohio legislative committee approved a bill on Wednesday that would weaken the powers of public workers unions to negotiate their contracts. The vote came as union supporters protested the measure for a second day on the grounds of the state capitol in Columbus.

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Over the heated protests of Democrats, the state Senate's Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee approved the bill by a vote of 7 to 5. One Republican and all four Democrats on the committee voted no. Earlier Wednesday, Republican Senate leaders replaced one Republican member of the committee who was ready to vote against the bill, which would have defeated it.

Republicans said the measure will come up for a vote in the full Senate later Wednesday. It includes changes unveiled by its Republican authors earlier this week that reinstate collective-bargaining powers for the state's more than 300,000 firefighters, police officers, teachers and other public workers, but only on the issues of wages, hours and certain terms and conditions.

But the measure also extends a prohibition on strikes to apply to teachers. And it bans binding arbitration, giving the ultimate power to settle contract disputes with elected bodies. In the case of a city, that power would fall to the city council, and in the case of state contracts, it would fall to the General Assembly.

"This is a wonderful compromise," said the bill's author, state Sen. Shannon Jones (R) of the Dayton area. "By going to the legislative body, the elected officials who ultimately are responsible for the budgets and the taxpayers' money will be the ultimate decision-makers."

Union organizers and their allies said the changes don't go far enough to give workers the ability to bargain on a wide range of contractual issues, including pensions and health benefits. Making strikes illegal for all public workers, they said, effectively neutralizes the power of collective bargaining and gives workers no incentive to come to the table.

"Not only in the bill that was originally offered, but even more in the substitute, the balance of power shifts to the managing side," said Sen. Tom Sawyer (D). "What are the incentives for public employees to bargain with faith?"

Jones's answer to that question - that the bill encourages both sides "to bargain in good faith" - drew laughter and hisses in the packed hearing room, where firefighters and other union members filled the seats and lined the walls. Committee chairman Sen. Kevin Bacon banged his gavel to restore quiet, as sporadic sounds from demonstrators drifted into the room from the atrium inside the statehouse.

On Tuesday, more than 8,000 union supporters descended on the statehouse in protest, making Ohio the latest flash point in the fight over union rights.

Like their counterparts in Wisconsin, demonstrators here accused lawmakers and the governor, John Kasich (R) , of trying to use a budget crisis to destroy public-sector unions. Government workers did not cause the crisis and should not bear the brunt of it, protesters said. The Ohio measure would go further than the one in Wisconsin by also affecting police officers and firefighters,

But unlike in the standoff in Wisconsin, Democratic lawmakers don't have the numbers to walk out and delay a vote.

"It's great to see so many people willing to come out and get heard," Senate President Tom Niehaus (R) said Tuesday during a Statehouse interview marked by the sound of chanting from outside. "But it doesn't affect our resolve."


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