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Kasich Tries to Calm Ohio Unions Pushing Vote on Bargaining Law

Ohio Governor John Kasich
Ohio Governor John Kasich. Photographer: David Maxwell/Bloomberg

Since Ohio Governor John Kasich signed a law restricting government unions similar to one backed by Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, he has spent months trying to avoid a divisive referendum on the measure, using private talks and public pressure.

After Walker braved a Capitol occupation and residents began trying to recall his legislative allies, Kasich supported private discussions with labor leaders in June, said Curt Steiner, a Republican consultant who hosted the talks at his Columbus office. When those proved fruitless, Kasich held news conferences last week urging opponents to consider a compromise taking the issue off the Nov. 8 ballot.

Walker and Kasich said after taking office in January that stopping collective bargaining was key to mending state and local budgets. Other governors won concessions without attacking that right, including Republican Chris Christie in New Jersey, who raised worker health-care contributions through legislation in June, and Democrat Dannel P. Malloy in Connecticut, who reached a deal with employees last week. Now, a parley with Ohio unions can avert a “toxic” ballot fight over the law, Steiner said.

“A lot of folks who support Senate Bill 5 would still prefer to see a resolution that would prevent this missile firing that’s going to occur in September and October, potentially doing a lot of collateral damage no matter who wins on Election Day,” Steiner said in a telephone interview.

Kill the Bill

We Are Ohio, a coalition of labor officials and Democrats has rejected Kasich’s offers. The group said Kasich and the Republican-controlled Legislature must first repeal the law.

The measure, which lets 360,000 public employees negotiate only for wages, hours and work conditions and sets minimums for pension and health-care contributions, is on hold after We Are Ohio submitted 915,456 signatures to put it to a vote.

Kasich, 59, called for a meeting last Friday with union leaders and sat with Republican House Speaker William G. Batchelder and Senate President Thomas Niehaus across from a table with six placards in front of empty chairs. The governor alternated between criticizing the unions for not negotiating and saying he still thinks there is time to work out a deal.

“If somebody wants to sneak in in the dead of night, or if they want to just give me a phone call or if they want to start talking, we’re open to it,” Kasich told reporters. The deadline to remove the issue from the ballot is Aug. 29, according to the Ohio secretary of state’s office.

Doomed to Fail

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee issued a statement saying Kasich’s offer shows he knows the law “is on its way to being torpedoed.”

The news conference with the empty table was an effort to paint unions as intransigent, said Dale Butland, a Columbus Democratic strategist and Ohio chief of staff to former U.S. Senator John Glenn.

“This is merely an attempt to gain a visual, as they say in the business, that they could put on the air in a television ad,” Butland said in a telephone interview. “Where was the call for compromise when they were jamming this through the Legislature?”

Kasich has more at risk than Walker did with the Wisconsin recalls because the Ohio referendum puts Kasich’s agenda, leadership and re-election in 2014 on the line, said Robert Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois.

“It’s much more a vote about him and about the future of the party,” Bruno said in a telephone interview. “He sees his political butt in the fire, and he’s looking for a way out.”

Political Necessity

Changes in worker benefits are needed because states can no longer afford them, said James Sherk, a labor analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, which advocates free-market approaches. Walker didn’t face a referendum on the Wisconsin law because there isn’t a provision for it, and Kasich is being practical, he said.

“If there wasn’t a referendum, Kasich wouldn’t be making the offer,” Sherk said in a telephone interview. “But he’d rather take half of a loaf than roll the dice and maybe get the whole loaf, maybe get nothing.”

Kasich has said that while he would like to avoid an ugly campaign, the law will help local governments control costs and that its supporters will prevail after voters understand all of its provisions.

A Quinnipiac University poll released July 20 showed that 56 percent of Ohio voters would repeal the law, compared with 32 percent who would keep it. The poll also showed that most voters support the law’s provisions involving employee-benefit contributions, and Kasich has been emphasizing those aspects.

Bad Blood

There is a risk that opponents might lose the referendum or that the Republican lawmakers could come back after the law is repealed and re-enact portions of it, said Paul Beck, a political-science professor at Ohio State University.

Still, “a very toxic political climate” makes a settlement difficult, and any campaign would be “nasty,” he said.

We Are Ohio filed a campaign finance report July 29 showing $4.97 million in contributions plus $1.98 million of in-kind contributions. Building a Better Ohio, the group supporting the law, has not yet disclosed its campaign activity.

Wisconsin faced six months of political battles after the union law was passed there in March amid days of protests at the state Capitol. Opponents sought the recall of six Republican state senators to give Democrats control of the chamber and failed, though two Republican senators were recalled in campaigns that drew national attention and a projected $40 million in spending.

The aggregate vote in the nine recall elections was 50.7 percent Democrat, 49.3 percent Republican, close enough that the outcome could have gone either way, said Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“There is a good lesson along these lines that when you deal with this policy issue of union representation, you are lighting the fuse on political dynamite and neither side can be completely confident about what that effect is,” Franklin said in a telephone interview.

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