Protests grow in Ohio as vote on union rights nears

Gai Coffman, 3, stands with teachers from Akron, Ohio, and thousands of others demonstrating at the Ohio Statehouse.
Gai Coffman, 3, stands with teachers from Akron, Ohio, and thousands of others demonstrating at the Ohio Statehouse. (Melina Mara)
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 2, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Thousands of union supporters descended on the Ohio Statehouse on Tuesday to protest a proposal that would dramatically curtail bargaining powers of government workers, as the state becomes the latest flash point in the fight over union rights.

Like their counterparts in Wisconsin, protesters here accused lawmakers and Gov. 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.

But unlike in the standoff in Wisconsin, Democrats don't have the numbers to walk out and delay a vote. Supporters said that a measure, which would go further than the one in Wisconsin by also affecting police officers and firefighters, could emerge from the state Senate on Wednesday.

"It's great to see so many people willing to come out and get heard," Senate President Tom Niehaus said during a Statehouse interview marked by the sound of chanting protesters 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 put to the test the message of fiscal reform that propelled Republicans to victories across the country last year.

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 will 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 continue to 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 that would help close the state's budget gap, but Walker remained determined to achieve a resolution that he said would give state and local governments leverage to limit employee costs well into the future.

Without legislation to pare employee health-care and pension benefits while curbing collective bargaining rights for many public employees, Walker has said he and the heads of local governments would have no choice but to trigger 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, 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 restrict collective bargaining, block strikes and do away with binding arbitration for more than 300,000 firefighters, police officers, teachers, and other state and local government workers.

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