As Ohio remains mired in recession, state and local governments must contain their costs of employee compensation -- by far their largest expense. That's needed to enable governments and school districts to balance their budgets without resorting to broad-based tax increases, mass layoffs, or big cuts in public services that would afflict taxpayers.
How to update public-employee labor relations, to address changes to Ohio's economy in the three decades since the current collective-bargaining law took effect, is at the heart of the debate over Issue 2 on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The proposal's supporters want voters to affirm Senate Bill 5, a law enacted this year by Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly. It would greatly limit bargaining rights of the state's 350,000 public workers, ostensibly to achieve more efficient and flexible government and to cut costs.
Overall, though, Issue 2 is primarily a partisan, ideological, and special-interest attack on the ability of union-represented workers -- many of whom do difficult and dangerous jobs -- to negotiate working conditions as well as pay and benefits. Its net effect would be destructive not only to government employees but also to the taxpayers they serve. It deserves a NO vote.
But if voters choose to reject Issue 2, thus repealing the new law, the battle will not be over. The organized opposition to the ballot proposal, mostly unions and their Democratic allies, have offered Ohioans no alternative other than perpetuation of the obsolete status quo. That's just as unacceptable.
Reach a compromise
Ohioans must demand that Mr. Kasich and the legislature represent them first -- not the interest groups that are spending nearly $30 million to back or fight Issue 2. Finally doing the job that the governor and lawmakers of both parties were elected to do starts with working together on a compromise that would enact the legitimate reforms in Issue 2 while discarding its excesses.
Issue 2 does offer some valid and necessary changes. It would require public employees to contribute reasonably to the cost of their health insurance, as private-sector workers long have done. It eliminates mandatory pay raises that are not tied to job performance.
It would abolish the noxious practice of "pension pickup" -- forcing taxpayers to subsidize government employees' own contributions to their pension plans. It also would limit employees' ability to collect windfall pay for unused sick and vacation days when they retire. Both are particular problems in Toledo.
Issue 2 would enable governments to take employees' merit into account, as well as seniority and often-dubious credentials, in deciding whom to promote, reward, and lay off. It recognizes that the current system of all-or-nothing binding arbitration to resolve labor-management disputes does not adequately consider taxpayers' ability to pay.
If Issue 2 did only these things, it would deserve to become law. But it goes too far to punish public unions and tilt the playing field in favor of government in a way that would serve no one well.
The proposal would allow legislative bodies and school boards to impose unilaterally their final offers to resolve contract impasses, effectively eliminating their incentive to bargain in good faith. It would prohibit all public employees from striking, shutting off a rarely invoked but potentially useful safety valve.
It would restrict the permissible topics of collective bargaining, depriving workers of a voice on such basic issues as the appropriate number of firefighters on a truck, police officers on the street, or students in a classroom.
Bland assurances that governments would never think of jeopardizing public safety, even in a fiscal emergency, are a lot to take on faith.
Issue 2 also would prohibit the collection of "fair share" fees from workers who refuse to join public unions but benefit from what they negotiate. The proposal would make it easier to decertify unions, and harder for them to raise money from employees for political action committees. These things have nothing to do with making government more efficient or cost-effective, but rather are gratuitous slaps at organized labor.
The history of Issue 2 is a shameful commentary on the partisan polarization of Ohio government. Before they approved Senate Bill 5, Mr. Kasich and GOP lawmakers excluded Democratic legislators and union officials from meaningful participation in its development.
But when the governor belatedly offered to negotiate changes in the law, after opponents sponsored a petition drive to get it on the ballot, unions and Democrats balked. That missed opportunity suggested opponents also would rather have a political issue than a good law.
Opinion polls indicate that public opposition to Issue 2 is growing, partly because of the surprisingly lackluster and underfunded campaign for it. The polls also make clear which elements of the proposal voters support and which they disdain. A vote to repeal would force the governor and lawmakers to revamp Senate Bill 5 to reflect these preferences.
Mr. Kasich and the GOP majorities in the House and Senate still will have the votes to do what they want. But on a second effort, it would behoove them to use a more open and transparent -- and less partisan -- process to pass a collective-bargaining reform bill. And this time, unions and Democrats must be prepared to contribute more to the debate than reflexive rejection of any change.
First things first, though. To get a better collective-bargaining law, Ohioans must reject this bad one. Vote NO on Issue 2.