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Published: Sunday, 2/26/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

False choice on labor law: Part 2

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

Remember last year's brawl in Ohio over Issue 2/Senate Bill 5? Brace yourself for an equally nasty and divisive sequel.

This November, Ohio voters could face the same sort of no-win choice they were given in 2011: between approving radical change in state labor law and keeping the obsolete status quo in union-employer relations. Nothing in between.

A coalition of conservative groups is preparing a ballot issue that would make Ohio a "right-to-work" state. Under the proposed amendment to the state constitution, private and public-sector unions and employers could not require workers to join a union and pay dues as a condition of employment. Nor could they charge employees who choose not to join a union "fair share" fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining.

Supporters of right-to-work say it makes states more economically competitive, flexible, and attractive to prospective employers. Opponents say it depresses wages, denies workers legitimate rights, and adds to the nation's growing income inequality.

You might think that a right-to-work ballot proposal would face long odds in Ohio, given the thumping Issue 2 got last November. Three out of five voters made clear they weren't interested in busting public-employee unions in the name of collective-bargaining "reform." And so far, Gov. John Kasich and other Republican leaders who led the fight for Issue 2 are keeping their distance from the right-to-work campaign.

About one of every seven Ohio workers is represented by a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ohio ranks sixth among states in its number of union members, about 647,000. That suggests a big built-in constituency against right-to-work.

But other factors might indicate a greater prospect of success for the ballot proposal. Among its backers are the advocates behind the enactment last November of Issue 3, which supposedly -- but dubiously -- would allow Ohio to opt out of the mandate in President Obama's health-care reform law that requires Americans to buy health insurance. Voters approved that ballot question by even a wider margin than they rejected Issue 2.

It's doubtful that the right-to-work campaign would fly as far under the radar as Issue 3 did. But its proponents have shown that they know how to craft a winning, if deceptive, argument: Attach the word "freedom" to your scheme.

This month, a majority of Ohio voters surveyed by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute said they would support a right-to-work law -- even before petition signatures have been gathered for the proposal or its language approved for the ballot.

The poll's directors conclude that many independent voters who opposed Issue 2 also back right-to-work. The concept attracts majority support across gender, income, and age categories, according to the poll.

Right-to-work raises all sorts of red flags. If you can get the pay, benefits, and workplace standards that unions negotiate without paying dues or equivalent fees, you're less likely to join a union. But if large numbers of free riders cause unions to lose their collective-bargaining strength, who's going to ensure that those gains remain in place?

"This is another attempt by far-right extremists to divide worker against worker," says Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO. "We should be trying to raise the bar for all workers, not joining the race to the bottom. When organized labor was at its strongest point in Ohio, the state's economy was at its strongest point."

Of the 10 states with the highest unemployment rates over the past year, Mr. Burga notes, seven have right-to-work laws. He cites Bureau of Labor Statistics data that the average worker in a right-to-work state makes $5,300 a year less than his or her counterpart in states without such laws, and is less likely to get health and retirement benefits.

Still, Indiana this month became the nation's 23rd right-to-work state, the first in more than a decade, and the first in the Rust Belt. Economic-development officials in Indiana say that as many as half of the companies that were leaving that state were moving to right-to-work states. Joining those ranks is a matter of self-preservation, they claim.

Republican lawmakers in Michigan are demanding what they call similar "labor freedom" there, although GOP Gov. Rick Snyder says that isn't on his agenda. Since unions are no longer working to repeal the long-standing federal law that prohibits compulsory unionization, right-to-work states get to operate under a different set of labor rules.

Mr. Burga told me he's confident that an informed Ohio electorate would reject a right-to-work law. But as the ancient political adage reminds us, you can't beat something with nothing.

As they did during the Issue 2 campaign, union leaders and their Democratic allies insist they are fighting to preserve the middle class in Ohio. They appropriately call for cooperation among organized labor, business, and government to create jobs and promote the state's economic recovery. But they continue to skirt discussion of the labor reforms that Ohioans say they want.

Even as they trounced Issue 2, voters told pollsters the measure included some features that they favored. Among other things, they expressed dissatisfaction with rigid union seniority rules that protect the pay and perquisites of the most-entrenched and highest-paid workers, even if that means younger employees get laid off.

They suggested they want employers to be able to make merit, not strict seniority, the basis of workplace decisions. Some Ohio unions are ahead of others in engaging such matters, but these are issues that all private-sector as well as public unions must address now.

The last time Ohio considered the right-to-work issue was in 1958, when voters defeated a proposed initiative by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio.

We live in a far different state today -- not so different that labor unions no longer have a relevant role, but different enough that the labor-management model that has mostly prevailed since the last vote needs to be overhauled.

If unions and their supporters want to prevent Ohio from joining the right-to-work ranks, they will have to offer voters a new era of labor relations, not merely invoke nostalgia for a vanished past.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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