Drive to Reverse SB 5 in Ohio Is Labor's Last, Best Hope for 2011 Win
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
Public employee unions spent most of 2011 suffering setback after setback in negotiating sessions, at state capitols and at the polls. But surveys suggest the labor movement is on the verge of a big win in Ohio next week. If it materializes, it could resonate in other states as well.
Voters will decide whether to endorse a 304-page law , known in Ohio as Senate Bill 5, that Republicans passed to curb the power of unions and reduce the amount local governments spend on retirement and health benefits for police, firefighters, teachers and other public employees.
The bill provoked a major backlash from unions, whose members, like their counterparts in Wisconsin, protested by the thousands at the Statehouse. When Republican Governor John Kasich, a key backer of SB 5, signed the bill into law, unions gathered 1.3 million signatures to put the issue before voters.
The voters will make their decision November 8. Polls suggest they are likely to reject SB 5 — which they would do by voting no on a referendum known as Issue 2. Quinnipiac University reported last week that 57 percent of those surveyed wanted to get rid of the law, compared to 32 percent who wanted to keep it. "Anything is possible in politics," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in a statement , "but with such across-the-board support for repealing SB 5, the governor and his team can't be optimistic about the fate of their law."
Whatever happens in Ohio will likely affect labor relations elsewhere. The straight up-or-down vote on the labor law in a politically competitive state will show elected officials how the electorate feels about the increasingly frequent attempts to rein in pay and benefits for government workers.
"Right now, it just so happens the spotlight is on us," says Connie Wehrkamp, a spokeswoman for Building a Better Ohio, which backs the law. "But we are hardly unique, in that our state and our communities are dealing with unsustainable situations."
"On the national question, whoever wins this vote is going to get a push," says Lee Adler, a collective bargaining expert at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. "It is a very big deal. Nobody could shrug this off. They might be able to spin it, but they won't be able to shrug it off."
String of defeats
One of the reasons it is such a big deal is because, in state after state, public sector labor unions have fared so badly this year.
The most visible fight, of course, was in Wisconsin, where Democratic state senators fled to Illinois and thousands of people descended on Capitol Square in Madison to try to stop an anti-union bill from passing. But the bill passed anyway. Unions and their allies also failed in a bid to put Democrats in control of the Wisconsin Senate by recalling Republican senators who had supported it.
Labor gave ground on many other fronts. Even states with Democratic governors are curbing worker benefits. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened layoffs to gain concessions from public employees in contract negotiations. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy sent out pink slips to state workers to show them the consequences if they did not approve a deal that included benefit reductions and wage freezes. On a second vote, they approved it. Illinois lawmakers weakened the power of Chicago teachers to strike and are now debating a wage freeze for state employees.
Adler, from Cornell, says the Ohio vote would signal to unions that the public is with them. It might give anti-union Republican governors such as New Jersey's Chris Christie a reason to pause or scale back their plans. If SB 5 survives, on the other hand, its success would send a positive signal to Democratic governors, such as Cuomo and Malloy, who have taken on the unions. These governors would perceive, says Adler, that "in a state like Ohio, with this massive effort, the governor didn't really get hurt."
Beating back the new law in Ohio would not give unions any additional power; it would simply keep things as they are now. But the labor movement is still pouring lots of resources into defeating the Ohio law.
"The unions look at this as taking a stand — and probably a diversion as well, because they just have limited funds and limited political clout," says Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Massachusetts. "The more stands they take, and the more states they have to take stands in, the drier the resources become. So I think Ohio is pretty much it."
Unions had a similar all-hands-on-deck mentality in the recall elections this summer in Wisconsin, when they fell one seat short of flipping the state Senate to Democratic control. But there are key differences that could go a long way toward explaining why labor seems to be faring better in Ohio.
First, the Ohio law would restrict the collective bargaining rights of police and firefighters, who were exempted in Wisconsin. These groups have been the face of the campaign over SB 5. Both sides have used them in their ads.
Supporters of the law say it is needed to avoid layoffs of police and firefighters. "The whole point of Issue 2," says Wehrkamp, "is to give local governments the tools to control their costs." She says that expenses for police and firefighters can make up 60 percent to 70 percent of a city's budget. "By exempting police and fire," she argues, "essentially you're telling cities to balance 100 percent of their budgets on 30 or 40 percent of their workers, which is not fair to those other government workers."
Opponents of SB 5 say the new limits on employee bargaining jeopardize public safety. "People are concerned this bill makes it illegal for firefighters, police officers and nurses to come to the table and talk about safe staffing levels," says Melissa Fazekas of We Are Ohio, which wants the law repealed.
"We want to trust these professional voices," Fazekas adds. "When a firefighter says, 'I need three firefighters or four firefighters on this truck when we're responding to an emergency,' it's not only what's safe for them as professionals, it's what's best for their local communities and how they protect them."
The second major difference between the Wisconsin and Ohio elections is the actual matter on the ballot. While the Wisconsin recall elections tended to be proxy battles between labor and business groups, the campaigns also addressed many unrelated issues . Furthermore, the contests were limited to nine Senate districts. Ohio, by comparison, will have a direct statewide vote on a single question.
The law that is before Ohio voters chiefly affects how local governments and school districts negotiate with their employees. The law eliminates binding arbitration and gives the final say in contract negotiations to elected officials and, in some cases, the voters. Labor critics argue that the law effectively changes the process from collective bargaining to "collective begging." But supporters say the new process would be more transparent and would make local officials more accountable to taxpayers instead of just to the workers.
The Republican-backed law requires public employees to pay 15 percent of their health care premiums out-of-pocket and prohibits localities from covering the worker's share of retirement benefits. It also reduces the number of subjects that employees can negotiate over. Teachers, for example, could not challenge restrictions on the number of students per classroom. Generally, contracts could cover only wages, hours and the terms of employment.
To dilute the political power of public employee unions, the law also restricts the flow of money into union treasuries. For example, it eliminates the "fair share" fees paid to unions by non-union members who are in jobs covered by a collective bargaining agreement. It also makes it harder for unions to collect payroll deductions used for political campaigning.
One downside for unions and their allies in Ohio, compared to Wisconsin, though, is that they have no chance to change party control of any portion of state government with next week's vote. Regardless of the outcome, Kasich and the Republicans who originally passed Senate Bill 5 will still control the Statehouse.