Ohio police, firefighters decry bargaining limits

Posted March 31, 2011, at 9:38 p.m.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Unlike Wisconsin’s high-profile effort to limit collective bargaining rights for public workers, Ohio’s new law includes police officers and firefighters — who say it threatens the safety of them and the people they protect.

Opponents have vowed to put the issue on the November ballot, giving voters a chance to strike down the law. The firefighters’ union in Cleveland plans to hit the streets and help gather signatures.

Patrolman Michael Cox, a 15-year veteran of Cleveland’s police force, said Ohio overlooked the inherent risks of police and firefighting work when lawmakers included them in the bill, which passed the Legislature on Wednesday and was signed into law by Republican Gov. John Kasich on Thursday.

“We don’t run from the house fire; we don’t run from the gunshot,” Cox said. “We’re the guys that got to say, ‘OK, we’re going to go fix this problem real fast.’”

Under the Ohio plan, police and firefighters won’t be able to bargain with cities over the number of people required to be on duty. That means they can’t negotiate the number of staff in fire trucks or police cars, for instance.

Supporters of the bargaining limits say decisions on how to equip police and fire departments should be in the hands of city officials, not union members.

“Shouldn’t it be the employer who decides what’s safe and what’s not safe?” said state Rep. Joseph Uecker, who was a police officer in the Cincinnati area for 15 years. “Don’t you think they are the ones who should decide whether they should have one or two or three people in a car? That’s what we call management rights.”

Cleveland police Officer Anthony Sauto is recovering after a bullet that pierced his leg a few months ago during a night shift on the west side of town. The wound will heal, but he worries that patrolling the streets will be even more dangerous when he returns to work.

 

“That’s my No. 1 concern,” Sauto said. “We put our lives on the line.”

The 350,000 public workers covered under the law can still negotiate wages and certain work conditions — but not health care, sick time or pension benefits. The measure also does away with automatic pay raises and bases future wage increases on merit.

 

Wisconsin’s measure covers 175,000 workers but exempts police and firefighters.

Kasich has said his $55.5 billion, two-year state budget counts on unspecified savings from lifting union protections to fill an $8 billion hole.

 

In northeast Ohio, fear that a loss of bargaining will result in layoffs and further cutbacks is rippling through the law enforcement community.

One of the biggest worries is one-man patrol cars, said Steve Loomis, president of the city’s local police union. Under the current contract, Cleveland police officers are required to have at least two officers in a patrol car when driving through certain neighborhoods, Loomis said.

After Kasich’s signature on the bill, Democrats have 90 days to gather more than 230,000 valid signatures to get it on the fall ballot. Loomis believes that if Senate Bill 5 goes unchallenged, the two-man rule will be the first thing to go.

 

“They’re going to give up our safety for the illusion that there’s more police on the street,” Loomis said. “That’s horrifying. Guys get killed.”

And equipment that police officers say is vital but that the city says is too expensive — such as computers in patrol cars, a rarity in Cleveland — will be harder to get without the complete bargaining process, Loomis said.

State lawmakers did make last-minute changes to the measure in the House that allow police and fire officials to bargain for vests, shields and other safety gear.

Mike Norman, secretary for Cleveland’s local firefighters union, said that’s cold comfort compared with what he called an “all-out assault” on the union.

“Changes to the game supersede the topics that we’re allowed to discuss,” he said. “This isn’t something that needed to be tweaked a little bit.”

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