Ohio voters will get to decide fate of union law

Posted July 21, 2011, at 10:12 p.m.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio voters will get to decide in November whether to repeal the state’s new collective bargaining law, which would let public worker unions negotiate wages but not health care, sick time or pension benefits.

The state’s elections chief said Thursday that opponents had gathered enough valid signatures to put the question before voters. The measure is now suspended from taking effect until voters have their say.

The law signed by GOP Gov. John Kasich in late March affects more than 350,000 public workers, including police officers, firefighters, teachers and state employees. Aside from restricting bargaining, it bans strikes and gets rid of automatic pay increases, replacing them with merit raises or performance pay.

The group We Are Ohio delivered more than 1.3 million signatures to Secretary of State Jon Husted, though the opponents needed roughly 231,000 valid signatures to get the question on the ballot. He said more than 915,000 of the signatures were valid.

The opponents’ successful campaign proves that the legislation was “a bad bill that was passed by extreme politicians who are out of touch with hardworking Ohioans,” said Melissa Fazekas, a spokeswoman for We Are Ohio.

The measure was approved by the Republican-controlled state Legislature in March amid shouts and jeers from protesters in each chamber. But the overall response by protesters in the Rust Belt state, despite its long union tradition among steel and autoworkers, paled in comparison to Wisconsin, where protests topped more than 70,000 people. Ohio’s largest Statehouse demonstrations on the measure drew about 8,500 people.

That difference has been attributed to Madison’s labor legacy and the proximity of the populous University of Wisconsin campus to the state capital.

The fallout from each state’s bitter fights over collective bargaining restrictions have also differed.

Unlike in Wisconsin, Ohio voters cannot recall state lawmakers, so opponents are pushing for repeal through a referendum.

In Wisconsin, nine state senators — six Republicans and three Democrats — face recall elections. GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining law eventually survived a court challenge and took effect.

A Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that 56 percent of Ohio voters say the new collective bargaining law should be repealed, compared with 32 percent who say it should be kept.

The We Are Ohio campaign says 10,000 volunteers and some paid workers circulated petitions to get the referendum before voters. The coalition of labor groups and others contends the law is an unfair attack on workers.

Kasich, a first-term governor, and his GOP colleagues argue the legislation will help city officials, school superintendents and others control their costs at a time when they, too, are feeling budget woes.

Kasich has said he plans to play a visible role in defending the law. So far, he has directed his supporters to a website for Building a Better Ohio, a group that wants to keep the new law in place.

Jason Mauk, a spokesman for Building a Better Ohio, said Thursday that certification of the signatures puts the focus back on the law’s merits.

“Ohio voters now have a choice to make,” Mauk said in a statement. “We can keep the unfair, unsustainable policies that are bankrupting our communities, or we can change direction and give them the tools they need to create jobs and get spending under control.”

The referendum’s clearance for the ballot came as the head of the AFL-CIO met in Columbus with community organizations, religious groups and representatives from the Ohio Conference of the NAACP.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka would not say how much money the nation’s largest labor federation planned to spend in the ballot effort, only that the organization planned to devote resources and people to help repeal the law.

“This is a battle of over the conscious and the moral character and the direction of the country,” Trumka told reporters. “And we think that the people in Ohio and the people in America think that people like Gov. Kasich is going in the wrong direction — that he overreached, that he used a tough budget time to try to scapegoat public employees and try to destroy a ladder into the midd le class.”

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols said the law was about restoring fairness and balance between the private and public sector employees.

“Mr. Trumpka does have to live in one of Ohio’s cities or towns that are hanging on by their fingers, struggling with high costs,” Nichols said.

The state’s labor groups have turned to their members to help pay for the repeal campaign.

Ohio’s largest teachers union in May agreed to a one-time, $54 dues increase. The move by the members of the Ohio Education Association was expected to yield an additional $5.5 million.

The Fraternal Order of Police also anticipated raising $1 million from their roughly 200 local lodges around the state. And the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters asked its 9,600 members to voluntarily kick in $100 for the repeal effort.

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