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

By Amy Gardner and Michael A. Fletcher
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.

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."

Similar conflicts playing out in about a half-dozen states have not only thrust public-sector unions into crisis mode but also tested the message of fiscal reform that propelled Republicans to victories across the country last fall.

Whether voters - particularly crucial independents in swing states such as Ohio and Wisconsin- are willing to accept deep cuts to services or the erosion of union influence could help determine whether these newly powerful Republicans will win at the polls again next year.

In Wisconsin, newly elected Gov. Scott Walker (R) announced a budget Tuesday that would turn up the heat in his standoff with public employees unions. Walker's spending plan envisions slashing aid to local governments and school districts, which he has said could translate into 12,000 layoffs over the next two years.

"This is a reform budget," Walker said during a joint session of the legislature Tuesday afternoon. "It is about getting Wisconsin working again - and to make that happen, we need a balanced budget that works and an environment where the private sector can create 250,000 jobs over the next four years."

Unions have offered concessions to help close the state's budget gap, but Walker said he was determined to give state and local governments leverage to limit employee costs well into the future.

Without legislation to pare employee health-care and pension benefits and curb collective bargaining rights, Walker has said he and the local government leaderss would have to begin massive layoffs.

Walker's proposal has been passed by the state assembly, and 14 Democratic state senators have fled Wisconsin to block the state Senate from passing the measure. The face-off has shown no signs of abating, as the Senate Democrats insist they will not return to the capitol unless Walker relents on his plans to curb unions' collective bargaining rights.

In Columbus on Tuesday, state officials estimated that 8,500 union supporters gathered on Capitol Square, where they listened to speeches, cheered and displayed signs urging defeat of Senate Bill 5, which would affect more than 300,000 firefighters, police officers, teachers, and other state and local government workers.

As a TV news helicopter buzzed overhead and dozens of state troopers watched over the throngs, protesters bundled against the chill accused Republicans of trying to destroy public-sector unions.

"Toledo firefighters gave up $3.2 million in concessions alone," said Dan Desmond, 46, a 22-year veteran of the Toledo fire department who traveled to Columbus on Tuesday wearing his turnout jacket and helmet. "That's why we negotiate. That's what we gave them back."

When Senate Republicans announced plans to vote on the measure as soon as Wednesday, Democrats accused them of trying to push the legislation through without listening to those who oppose it or giving the public time to digest the details.

Kasich, who supports the measure, said in an interview last week that reform of public-sector unions is only one piece of a far-reaching agenda for this year. He said will lay out some of it in his budget proposal, which he plans to unveil in a few weeks.

"We need changes in the state of Ohio so that we can create economic growth," Kasich said. "The reining in of government can provide a better product to the customer, who happens to be the taxpayer. We need to grow. We've lost more jobs than every state in the country except Michigan and California."

Gardner reported from Columbus; Fletcher reported from Washington.

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