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Published: Saturday, 7/2/2011

Labor battle begins

Opponents of Senate Bill 5 collected 1.3 million signatures from Ohio voters, more than five times the number they needed, to get the bad new state law that restricts public employees' ability to negotiate contract terms on the November ballot. Some 6,000 opponents of the law paraded through Columbus this week to deliver the petition signatures.

The record signature count doesn't ensure the law will lose in November. Public unions still need to offer voters a better alternative than "just say no."

Overall, the new law does too much to restrict workers' rights. It prohibits public employees from striking. It limits too greatly the list of benefits that are subject to collective bargaining. It ends the collection of "fair-share" fees from public workers who don't want to join unions but take the benefits they negotiate.

But Senate Bill 5 also makes some useful changes: It requires public employees to pay at least 15 percent of their health-insurance premiums -- less than many private-sector workers pay. It would prevent taxpayers from having to pick up workers' share of their pension costs. It would replace automatic pay increases with a system of pay for performance.

Polls indicate that Ohio voters want police officers, firefighters, teachers, and other public workers to shoulder more of the costs of their health-insurance and pension plans. They think merit should replace longevity as the basis for raises.

But they're not interested in gutting collective-bargaining rights in the process. That may account for Gov. John Kasich's aborted attempt last month to break the law into several parts before it could be placed on the ballot.

During the debate so far, neither side has made a convincing case. State and local governments and school districts no longer can afford the sweetheart deals they made in the interest of labor peace during better economic times.

Pay raises for simply showing up, sick leave and vacation days that are banked for years, tax-funded jobs that have become sinecures, the prominence of seniority over all other considerations in job placement, advancement, and layoffs -- these things make no economic sense. Still, Senate Bill 5 also would undo needed protections and leave public workers too much at the mercy of their bosses.

Ohio's public unions would have voters believe that the current system does not need major change. A spokesman for the Toledo Federation of Teachers said that economic concessions agreed to this week by the union prove that collective bargaining works.

But while Toledo teachers are to be commended for helping the school district balance its budget without further gutting essential programs, they did so with Senate Bill 5 hanging over their heads. Public unions have yet to offer an alternative that would allow schools and local governments to live within their means and make the best use of their limited resources, while protecting hard-won rights for workers.

In Connecticut last month, public employees rejected contracts -- agreed to by union leaders -- that would have protected them from layoffs for four years, in return for a two-year wage freeze and substantial givebacks on pensions and health benefits. This occurred after the Democratic governor and legislature passed the biggest tax hike in state history to help close a $4 billion budget gap.

Ohio can't afford similar complacency, reflected in an intransigent defense of the status quo. Senate Bill 5 is a prime example of overreaching by a Republican governor and legislature bent on undoing a century's worth of workers' gains.

But public unions must abandon the "never give back" attitude, exemplified by Toledo's public-safety unions, that helped create the budget issues that threaten state and local governments. Voters deserve a better choice this fall than one between change that goes too far and no change at all.



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