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Biden accuses GOP of labor union attacks

V.P. speaks in Cincinnati

biden-pointing-on-labor-day-09-06-2011

Vice President Joe Biden responds to someone in the crowd during an AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic, Monday, Sept. 5, 2011, at Coney Island in Cincinnati.

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CINCINNATI -- Organized labor is under attack in a way not seen in generations, and Ohio is on the front line, Vice President Joe Biden said Monday as he accused Republicans of using the nation's current economic woes as an excuse to go after the working class.

"We've been through a lot of fights, but this is a different kind of fight," he told an annual Labor Day gathering of the Cincinnati AFL-CIO. "This is a fight for the heart and soul of the labor movement. This is a fight literally for our right to exist. Don't misunderstand what this is. … You are the only folks keeping the barbarians from the gates."

Using words such as "assault" and "onslaught," the Democratic vice president said labor has to push back the threat or face the rollback of hard-fought gains made by unions over the years.

"The middle class is under attack, because labor is under the most direct assault in generations," Mr. Biden said. "The other side has declared war on labor's house, and it's about time we stand up! Understand it for what it is. … Across the country from here in Ohio to Wisconsin to Florida, they're reopening fights we thought we settled 50 years ago."

On Nov. 8, Ohio voters will give the thumbs up or down to Senate Bill 5, a law passed solely with Republican votes that would make the most dramatic changes to public employee labor law since 1983. The law will appear on the ballot as Issue 2.

Among its numerous provisions, the law would outlaw strikes by public employees, limit what they can negotiate in contracts, require workers to pay at least 15 percent of their health care premiums, and prohibit government employers from picking up any portion of an employee's share of his pension contributions.

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If upheld by voters, the law also would scrap binding arbitration as the means to bring finality to contract disputes with police, firefighters, and other public safety employees, currently the only public workers barred from striking.

Instead, the law would substitute a new system for all public workers involving mediation, a public hearing, and then a vote of the legislative body of the local government in question, essentially management, to choose between the last best offers submitted by both sides. In some cases, that public vote could be subject to a public referendum.

Mr. Biden directly connected the nation's economic woes with the effort by Republican governors and legislatures to limit the bargaining power of government workers.

"By the time they left office (in Washington), 8 million people had lost their jobs," he said of Republicans in power before President Obama's election.

"We went from a budget surplus to a hemorrhaging debt," he said. "And now…, in an exercise of chutzpah that exceeds all, the ironies of all ironies, they literally are using their failed economic policies and excesses to justify taking away your right to bargain for safe working conditions and a little decent health care because they say we can't afford it after they wrecked the economy."

Jason Mauk, spokesman for the pro-Senate Bill 5 Building a Better Ohio, accused the Obama Administration of voicing support for public employee collective bargaining while acting at the federal level to unilaterally impose wage freezes because of the nation's budgetary problems.

He noted most federal employees are barred from striking, just as Ohio is proposing to do with its public workers.

"It seems like Vice President Biden should be a strong advocate for the reasonable reforms of Issue 2, which actually provides far greater protections for government employees than current federal labor policies," Mr. Mauk said.

"You'd think government union leaders would be accusing the Obama Administration of attacking the middle class, but they're actually welcoming the Vice President with open arms. How ironic," he said.

The Ohio GOP chairman, Kevin DeWine, said Mr. Biden's visit shows that the Obama Administration's economic policies are causing its labor support to wane as unemployment remains high.

"What Ohioans have come to understand is that in order for us to create more jobs, Joe Biden and [Democratic Sen.] Sherrod Brown need to lose theirs," Mr. DeWine said.

Odie Bowers, of Cincinnati, works in a private union shop in the retail industry. He would not be affected by the terms of Senate Bill 5, but he and his wife, Pam, a non-union social service agency employee, said they believe what happens to public unions will ultimately happen to the private.

"Most of the businesses are coming together and consolidating and trying to push the little guy, the unions, out," he said. "Our forefathers worked so hard to get the unions. We should work hard for it also."

Last week, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, a former city firefighter, became the first big-city mayor to endorse Senate Bill 5 and vow to work for it. His counterpart in Cincinnati didn't echo his sentiment.

"I don't need them to tell me how to negotiate with labor unions," Mayor Mark Mallory said.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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