Republican lawmakers in the Ohio Senate blinked a bit this week in their battle to reduce the power of public-sector unions. Their decision to back off their previous demand for a ban on collective bargaining for state employees should not be seen as weakness.
Instead, it is now incumbent on public unions to say what their members are ready to give up to put the state on sounder economic ground, and to help lawmakers devote resources to the sort of job creation that will benefit all Ohioans in the long run.
Gov. John Kasich and the General Assembly have two fiscal problems. First, how do they close the projected $8 billion shortfall in the state's next two-year budget? Second, how can they amend Ohio law to give state and local government officials more options to address future economic downturns?
Republicans apparently saw their victories in last November's election as a mandate from Ohio voters to make fundamental changes. Perhaps they believed that economically distressed Ohioans would scapegoat public-sector unions and embrace their dismemberment. So the GOP tried to have it all.
A bill before the Senate would prohibit collective bargaining and strikes by union-represented state workers; outlaw binding arbitration for police and firefighters, who are barred from striking; allow government to hire permanent replacements for workers who do strike, and take health care and pensions off the table as bargaining chips.
The public response to the legislation suggests that its advocates overreached. Unions -- public and private -- largely ignored the underlying fiscal issues and called the bill "payback," a "vendetta," an example of "punishing enemies" and "union busting."
They evoked images from 80 years ago, when goons hired by industrialists broke up union meetings and beat up striking factory workers who only wanted a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. They raised the specter of 1979, when a strike by police officers and firefighters resulted in two days of chaos on the streets of Toledo.
No one wants a replay of those events. Local governments would be wise to develop contingency plans to deal with any similar recurrence of lawlessness. But this debate need not, and should not be allowed to, reach that point.
In the contest for public opinion and sympathy, the ball is back in the unions' court. The union that represents the most state employees, the Ohio Civil Service Employees Union, muffed its first chance at a return volley when it simply dismissed the Senate GOP's first effort at compromise, saying it didn't go far enough.
Given the urgent financial problems that face Ohio, an all-or-nothing approach by either side is counterproductive. If public-employee unions aren't willing to offer reasonable concessions, they won't deserve and soon will lose public sympathy and support.
It's time for both sides to trade rhetoric for reality. The collective-bargaining rules for public-sector unions shouldn't be repealed, but will need to be revamped -- eventually. That discussion should be postponed in favor of negotiations on the state's immediate need to balance its budget.
Toward that end, public-employee unions have to stop pointing to what they have given up in the past and tell state government -- specifically -- what they'll give up now. That would show their willingness to be part of the solution, and give lawmakers and the Kasich administration a bargaining position they can respond to.
Compromises that will benefit everyone in Ohio are possible. But they require that unions and lawmakers talk to, not shout at, each other.
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