In the largest political protest the state Capitol has seen in 15 years, thousands of demonstrators descended on the Ohio statehouse yesterday to protest Gov. John Kasich‘s (R) bill taking away workers’ collective bargaining rights. The demonstrators, estimated at 8,500 strong, are speaking out against a bill that would “dramatically curtail bargaining powers of government workers, as the state becomes the latest flash point in the fight over union rights.” While much of the focus in recent weeks has been on Wisconsin, Ohio Republicans are taking a page from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) playbook to use the state’s budget woes as a pretext to cripple public sector unions with their own legislation, Senate Bill 5. Ohio’s bill would actually “go further than the one in Wisconsin by also affecting police officers and firefighters,” but unlike in the standoff in Wisconsin, Democrats in Ohio “don’t have the numbers to walk out and delay a vote.” The Ohio Senate Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee approved the changes today , which come in the form of a 99-page amendment to the bill. The committee’s chairman, state Sen. Kevin Bacon (R) worried he would not have enough votes to bring the measure to the Senate floor after Republican Sen. Bill Seitz (R), a committee member, said he would oppose it. Seitz even wrote an op-ed to the Cincinnati Enquirer warning the bill “overreach[es].” In a stunning move this morning, the Republican leadership yanked Seitz off the Labor committee, replacing him with a supporter of S.B 5 ahead of the vote.
READ THE BILL : The bill and its amendment would enact “sweeping changes” to the state’s existing collective-bargaining law, allowing only “wages, hours, and terms and conditions” to be subject to collective bargaining, while health care benefits, pensions, and other issues would not. As many labor supporters have noted, however, management could simply unilaterally dock workers’ benefits packages to compensate for any pay increases gained through collective bargaining. More disturbingly, the bill would ban strikes. The penalty for illegal striking would be termination, the docking of twice the workers’ daily pay rate, or even 30 days in jail. It would also end binding arbitration as the method for resolving police and fire contract impasses, replacing it “with a completely unworkable, unfair system.” “Such an arrangement, said Jim Gilbert, head of the union representing most police officers in Franklin County, would almost certainly lead to a preordained outcome [of] which the employer approves.” On top of all this, S.B.5 and its 99-page amendment would limit paid vacation and sick leave. Kasich has said the bill is necessary to solve the state’s fiscal issues, and has even claimed it will help bring jobs to Ohio. But as Ohio Progressive blog Plunderbund noted, “Senate Bill 5 isn’t about creating jobs in Ohio” and Kasich knows it. Showing a stunning lack of faith in his bill’s ability to deliver jobs, Kasich recently told Newsweek that unemployment may remain high through the next election. “We have a long way to run. If the jobs come in ’13, then God bless them,” Kasich said.
THE OPPOSITION : As in Wisconsin, public employee unions started opposition to the bill, but it quickly spread to other labor groups, then to concerned citizens and groups who have not directly affected by the legislation, but also don’t want to see their state become a unfair place for workers. “Firefighters, teachers, nurses, labor unions and others” arrived early yesterday morning for the biggest turnout yet in a week of protests, and are expected to be back in front of the statehouse today. Without collective bargaining, state employees would be at the mercy of all-powerful employer with little recourse. Columbus firefighter Lt. David Blair told the Columbus Dispatch that for him, the issue is more than money. “For me, it’s about safety. Our fire gear is subject to negotiation. If they take away the tools to do our job, people will perish,” he said. And it’s not just labor unions and their allies. The Catholic bishops of Ohio weighed in against the bill, saying they “encourage leaders in government, labor, and business to pursue changes that promote the common good without the elimination of collective bargaining. We urge continued good faith in ongoing negotiations.” And Seitz, a Republican, wrote in his op-ed that “[t]he bill is flawed because it says the employees’ only rights in that case are to work under a perpetual wage freeze, with management dictating the outcome. This reduces collective bargaining to a sham .” Moreover, the 99-page amendment was released only Monday, and legislators are expected to vote on it today, giving them almost no time to read or consider it. There’s not even a summary from Ohio’s Legislative Service Commission, the state’s version of the Congressional Research Service. As Seitz wrote, “Neither will I support a bill without taking time to read and understand it.”
BETTER WAYS TO FIX THE BUDGET : Opponents of the bill note that the current collective bargaining law works just fine. Indeed, the number of public employee strikes plummeted after the law was enacted in 1983, and has remained low ever since. Yet Kasich argues that unions are crippling the Ohio government. But more importantly, as in Wisconsin, kneecapping unions will do little to solve the state’s budget woes. Kasich claims his union busting would save the state $1.3 billion, but if Kasich is serious about solving the budget problem, he would abandon his political attack on the unions and focus on things that would actually make a difference. One way to do this would be to crack down on the state’s special interest tax dodging and tax breaks for the rich. The Progress Report identified a number of areas in which this would be possible. Kasich could end Ohio’s 2005 tax cuts for the wealthiest to make them pay their fare share. Restoring the income tax rate to 7.5 percent on those making over $200,000, and creating a new 8.5 percent rate on income above $500,000 would generate $950 million a year. The state could also end tax credits and benefits for wealthy Ohioans who don’t need them. These include a tax exemption for Social Security and railroad retirement, the limiting of which could help save $55 million, a homestead property tax reduction, which could help save $118 million, among others. Ending some of these unnecessary tax credits may even find big bipartisan support. For example, Ohio actually has an “income-tax deduction for gambling losses,” the elimination of which could save the state $80 million every two years. The fact that Kasich and his Republican colleagues haven’t considered these options exposes his efforts for what they are — union busting in the guise of sound fiscal policy.