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Published: Sunday, 4/3/2011

False choice on labor-law vote

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

Ohio's labor unions and their political allies have seven months to persuade voters to throw out the new state law that guts the collective-bargaining rights of 350,000 public workers.

As bad as that law is, if a lot of you are as ambivalent — and annoyed — as I am about the all-or-nothing choice we'll face in November, neither the backers of the law nor those who would repeal it will have an easy sell.

Voters will be forced into one of two lines. One is headed by Republicans in Columbus, led by Gov. John Kasich, who think they can build a 21st-century Ohio economy on a 19th-century model of labor relations.

The other is headed by intransigent union bosses and their Democratic acolytes who refuse to end — or even acknowledge — the abuses in the current collective-bargaining system. Such excesses afflict taxpayers and force wasteful, inefficient practices on governments and public schools.

Neither camp has shown any interest in finding a third way, of bringing the debate on the law from the extremes to the center and looking for areas of agreement. It's all been about power plays, and that's wrong.

Make no mistake, the new law goes much too far. Greatly restricting what public employees can negotiate, eliminating arbitration procedures, stacking the deck in favor of management, and then denying workers the right to strike removes balance — and vital safety valves — from the bargaining process.

Do we really want to resolve labor-management disputes by popular referendum, as the new law provides? Do elected officials need another excuse to hand off tough choices to voters?

Some provisions of the law have nothing to do with saving money or bargaining collectively. One glaring example among several union-busting features: prohibiting unions from charging fees to nonunion public employees who don't pay dues but still get union-negotiated pay and benefits. Republicans had the votes to pass it, so why not throw it into the pot?

But while public employees have noisily asserted their rights during their Statehouse protests, they've been largely silent about their responsibilities to the taxpayers they serve. We haven't heard union leaders describe the new concessions their members are prepared to make to help the state, local governments, and school districts emerge from their budget quagmires.

Governor Kasich is right when he argues that ossified work rules in union contracts too often deny public employers the flexibility they need to contain the cost of services and avoid laying off workers. But these are often the rules — such as last hired, first fired — that unions cling to most tenaciously.

Local examples abound. When the Toledo teachers union holds hostage a big federal grant that the school district desperately needs to dramatize its displeasure with the superintendent, that is an abuse of power.

And when the city trash haulers union works to block a new garbage-pickup plan designed to save Toledoans money and promote regional cooperation, it isn't acting out of a spirit of public service.

Advocates and opponents of the bargaining law both claim to represent the "middle class" — a phrase that is so amorphous it means whatever you want it to mean. Unions demand, rightly if futilely, to see the budget-balancing contributions that Columbus will expect from the state's wealthiest households and largest corporations. Instead, the state tax system is about to get much more regressive.

At the same time, the middle-class lifestyle that many public employees enjoy is largely subsidized by the taxes of working-class and low-income — and, in this economy, unemployed — Ohioans. A lot of them don't have the pay and benefits packages and retirement options that public-sector workers insist on keeping for themselves. Who has represented their interests in this debate?

Who in the Statehouse speaks for those of us who believe that Ohio must preserve the collective-bargaining rights of public employees, but that it also must reform the process to remove its obvious wrongs — the double dipping, the pension pickups, the often-inflated benefits?

In Columbus as in Washington, compromise has become a synonym for treason. Moderation, bipartisanship, conciliation — they're for wimps. I've got the votes, at least for now, so it's my way or no way. Man up.

By the end, neither side was interested in taking the time needed to improve the bargaining law. Supporters were determined to ram it through. Opponents, knowing they lacked the legislative votes to stop it, wanted it passed in time to conduct a petition drive to get it on the ballot this year.

The prospects for repeal of the new law might seem good. Voter turnout in off-year elections is usually low. The unions and their Democratic allies vow to mobilize their bases and financial resources in November.

But Governor Kasich's political organization, tea-party activists, and other interest groups that want to keep the new law won't sit on their hands or their wallets. Mr. Kasich turned the law's passage into a fund-raising appeal.

I suspect that the kind of polarization, the dialogue of the deaf, we saw and heard in Columbus over the past two months will also define the ballot campaign. Voters will have the alternatives of keeping the unacceptable status quo or affirming the even more indefensible change on offer.

No middle ground. No opportunity to say, "Yes, but ..."

Mr. Hobson had a name for that kind of choice. And if this is the model for how our state will resolve its big political differences for the foreseeable future, we're in trouble.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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