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Published: Wednesday, 8/10/2011

Hobson's choice

The battle lines have been drawn and the ballot language set on Senate Bill 5. But when Ohioans go to the polls on Nov. 8 to pass judgment on the measure, they may be voting on a false choice.

Ballot Issue 2 asks voters whether they want to give effect to the new law enacted this year that would restrict the ability of Ohio's public-employee unions to bargain collectively. A yes vote will result in enforcement of the law, which currently is in limbo. A no vote will reject the law in its entirety.

And therein lies the problem. Although Senate Bill 5 as a whole deserves to be struck down, not every part of it is equally offensive. Some provisions are useful and even necessary as state and local governments try to put their fiscal houses in order.

But neither side in this all-or-nothing argument wants to allow voters to pick and choose what they accept and reject in the law.

Under Senate Bill 5, taxpayers no longer would be required to pay some workers' share of their pension costs, a practice called pension pickup. Public employees would be required to pay at least 15 percent of the cost of their health-care coverage -- a much smaller share than many private-sectors workers pay, if they have employer-provided health insurance at all. Future pay raises would be tied to worker performance rather than years on the job.

But Gov. John Kasich and the GOP-led General Assembly were not content to stop with these reforms. Instead, Republicans chose to interpret Mr. Kasich's small victory margin last November as a mandate to enact radical change.

So Senate Bill 5 also includes provisions that would prevent public employees from striking, unfairly restrict the benefits that may be negotiated, and end collection of "fair-share" fees from nonunion public employees who receive union-negotiated benefits.

These provisions are not about saving money, as proponents of the law argue. They are a thinly veiled attempt to eviscerate public unions and place public workers at the mercy of their employers.

But it hardly would be more acceptable for the labor unions that are leading the charge against the law to argue to voters that the system is just fine as it is. It's not.

In the past, state and local governments gave away too much in the interest of labor peace. Among the results: public jobs that were treated like sinecures, workers who were able to bank pay for hundreds of sick and vacation days, raises that were awarded just for showing up, and promotions that were based on years on the job rather than performance.

For decades, union contracts set the bar for nonunion wages in many jobs. If public employees lose collective bargaining rights, nothing would prevent owners from arbitrarily lowering wages and eliminating benefits that have raised the standard of living of millions of nonunionized Ohio workers as well. That isn't the way forward for this state.

Public unions such as the Toledo Federation of Teachers and other units representing Toledo Public Schools employees accepted concessions in their most recent contracts. That's laudable, but the threat of Senate Bill 5 hanging over their heads likely influenced their decisions.And Toledoans are equally familiar with a police union that disdained any responsibility for helping the city overcome its financial emergency last year.

Polls show that Ohio voters want to get rid of the worst abuses of public employment and have public employees make more of the same sort of sacrifices private-sector employees have made. At the same time, they do not want to gut the collective bargaining power of public unions.

But Issue 2 does not allow them to make such distinctions. Faced with this Hobson's choice, voters should let Republicans in Columbus know they do not want a return to 19th-century labor relations in Ohio.

But voter support will disappear quickly if public unions were to interpret rejection of Senate Bill 5 as merely an endorsement of the status quo. Instead, union leaders must tell voters during the ballot-issue campaign how they will help prevent future tax hikes and slashes in public services, through reasonable reforms in labor relations that do not require approval of Senate Bill 5.



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