Ohio's still-anemic economy demands that state and local governments and school districts cut the cost of delivering public services. Since employee pay and benefits make up the largest part of the governments' budgets, moderating these expenses is an essential part of the process.
The preferred solution of Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-majority General Assembly is to roll back the collective-bargaining rights of public employees. That's no surprise: Candidate Kasich spoke at great length during last year's campaign of the need to revisit the state's collective-bargaining law, enacted in 1983 at a time of Democratic ascendancy in Columbus without a single Republican vote.
Unions understandably reject that Draconian proposal. But amid their emotional protests, they have yet to explain to taxpayers how they would deal more fairly and effectively with a projected $8-billion shortfall in the next two-year, $50-billion budget. "No!" is not a plan, however loudly repeated.
Organized labor strongly supported the re-election of then-Gov. Ted Strickland, as did The Blade. But even if voters had given Mr. Strickland another term, he would have had to deal with the same realities that confront Mr. Kasich and lawmakers. Above all, Ohio voters made clear at the polls last year, and in subsequent surveys, that they oppose any general tax increases.
The collective-bargaining system for public employees has enough advantages -- such as the alternative it provides to strikes such as Toledo's disastrous police and fire walkout in 1979 -- that it deserves to survive. But it also includes features that drive up the cost of services and distort labor markets. They need to be addressed.
Too often, the process encourages governments and school districts to resort to employee layoffs when they must cut labor costs, instead of gaining broader-based concessions from all employees.
The binding-arbitration process for police officers and firefighters does not take a government's ability to pay into adequate account.
Such features impair the quality of services and tend to leave taxpayers out of the process. And while unions assert that the collective-bargaining system has helped preserve Ohio's middle class, it is subsidized in large part by poor, working-class, and unemployed Ohioans who do not enjoy the same pay and benefits in the private sector that public employees do.
For example, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported this week that municipal workers in that city are owed about $93 million in unused time off.
In Toledo, many public workers have costly benefit packages that include pension pickups and seniority perks. Such provisions can interfere with the ability of city government and Toledo Public Schools to assign employees where they are most needed.
The Toledo Police Patrolman's Association sued the city over whether officers could be reassigned from "permanent, nonrotating shifts" after layoffs became necessary in 2009. An arbitrator ruled last week that in the 1980s, the city gave up its "full authority to schedule officers to meet the needs of the city." She awarded the affected police officers $500,000 that Toledo does not have in compensatory pay.
Toledo Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat reasonably suggests that governments should be allowed to reopen union contracts when revenues fall below a certain level. Another improvement would be to outlaw pension-pickup giveaways and other methods used to hide from taxpayers the true costs of contracts.
Public employees deserve to be paid fairly for the good, necessary work they do. But the process of gaining that compensation must take into account the needs of governments and taxpayers.
Like health-care reform at the federal level, Ohio's collective-bargaining system for public employees should not be scrapped. But it must be improved.
It may be too late for the unions that represent those employees to keep the governor and lawmakers from doing what they want to do. Their only hope now lies in showing their immediate willingness to negotiate reasonable reductions in labor costs.