After efforts across the U.S. this year to rein in government-worker unions, Ohioans today will decide whether Governor John Kasich and Republican lawmakers went too far.
Voters will consider a referendum on a law Kasich signed in March that was billed as a way to cut costs by limiting collective bargaining. Polls show the law may be headed for repeal, which would give Democrats a victory in a debate with Republicans over government’s scope heading into the 2012 presidential race.
The outcome “is going to have a lot to do with where this country goes politically,” Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, said during a Nov. 5 rally outside the main fire station in Warren, Ohio. “In every way you can measure it, this is really a national election.”
If the law is struck down by a large margin, it will boost Democrats and unions after defeats in 2010 that brought Kasich and other Republicans to power, said Paul Beck, a political-science professor at Ohio State University in Columbus.
“Momentum clearly was in a Republican direction through the 2010 elections and into 2011,” Beck said in a telephone interview. “You can almost think of this as an interception and touchdown off the interception by the other side that could simply turn the game around.”
The Ohio vote reflects the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, in which protesters excoriate the top 1 percent of U.S. wage-earners, said Harley Shaiken, labor professor at University of California-Berkeley.
“In Ohio, unions are seen as on the side of people who are suffering and are identified with by the 99 percent,” Shaiken said in a telephone interview.
The measure, which has been on hold pending the referendum, would restrict bargaining by almost 360,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other government employees to wages, hours and working conditions and bar strikes. It requires workers to cover at least 15 percent of their health-care insurance premiums and contribute 10 percent of their pay to a pension fund.
A similar measure pushed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, also a Republican, triggered weeks of protests at the Capitol in Madison and spurred recall elections for three Democratic senators and six Republicans. Two Republicans lost their seats, though the Senate remained in the party’s control.
The Ohio referendum is easier to interpret because the state allows a vote on the law itself, said John C. Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Oct. 25 showed that 57 percent of Ohio voters support repeal of the law, compared with 32 percent who would keep it. The poll also showed Ohioans back provisions including requiring workers to contribute more for health care and pensions, and if voters strike down the law today, portions may be re-introduced next year, House Speaker William G. Batchelder told reporters Nov. 3.
Efforts to control spending will continue after today’s election no matter the outcome, Kasich, 59, said at a Nov. 4 rally in support of the law in Mansfield.
“This is one battle in what’s going to be a number of battles that we have to wage,” Kasich said during the rally. “The problem isn’t going to go away for local communities. They have got to figure out a way to control their costs.”
Kasich and Republican lawmakers closed a deficit of up to $8 billion dollars this year without raising taxes. U.S. cities project that combined revenue will fall by 2.3 percent by year-end, the fifth-straight annual decline, the Washington-based National League of Cities said in a Sept. 27 report.
State Senator Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican who voted against the bill, said his colleagues overreached. Still, Ohio’s collective-bargaining law that passed in 1983 when Democrats held power needs to be “rebalanced,” he said.
“I certainly hope that regardless of the outcome, we would go back to the drawing board and try to moderate some of the sharp edges that I think have turned a disagreement into a war,” Seitz said in a telephone interview.
The law unfairly singles out public employees, said Michael Casto, 52, a truck driver from West Jefferson, just east of Columbus, whose wife is a prison guard.
“They make it seem like everyone else is eating cat food so we can eat steak,” Casto said in an interview after talking with Columbus-area teachers Dona Givens, Shelley Franks and Linna Jordan, who were canvassing in his neighborhood Nov. 4.
Money Pours In
Kasich tried unsuccessfully this summer to negotiate a compromise that would have kept the issue off today’s ballot. Striking a post-referendum deal may be more difficult after a bitter campaign with millions of dollars of advertising, said Beck, the Ohio State professor.
Contributions to the campaign seeking to repeal the law were $30.6 million as of Oct. 25, according to the reports filed with Ohio secretary of state’s office. The group supporting the law brought in $7.6 million, and outside groups have spent $2.45 million independently, records show.
The Ohio vote should chill governors considering similar efforts to limit bargaining, said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union until last year.
“Between Wisconsin and Ohio, this makes every governor think twice,” Stern said in a telephone interview. “They need to ask themselves: Do we really want to go through what Scott Walker and John Kasich went through?”
Public and Private
The vote comes as public workers account for an increasing share of declining union membership. The number of Ohioans represented by unions last year fell to almost 702,000 from 1.13 million in 1983, while the proportion of them who are government employees increased to 47.7 percent from 26.2 percent, according to unionstats.com.
Unions representing workers in private industry have joined public employees, said Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union. He and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka campaigned in Ohio before the vote.
``It's going to show that these guys have overreached, that they were sent into office to create jobs and help fix the economy, and instead of doing that, they decided to be political,'' Trumka said in a telephone interview yesterday during a drive from Cleveland to Columbus.