COLUMBUS — Ohio voters dealt a serious blow to the agenda of Gov. John Kasich and fellow Statehouse Republicans on Tuesday as they overwhelmingly rejected their law severely restricting the collective-bargaining power of some 350,000 government workers.
The fight also may have galvanized organized labor going into the 2012 presidential election.
With 97 percent of the unofficial count reported, 61 percent said "no" to Issue 2, the referendum on Senate Bill 5, compared to 39 percent who wanted to save a law that has proved to be one of the most controversial in recent memory.
Mr. Kasich, who ultimately became the primary face of the failed campaign to save the law, said it was time to "take a breath" before determining the next step.
Voters "might have said that it was too much too soon," he said. "Maybe that was it. I don't really know, except I know this: When you try to do big things, you must do a good job preparing the ground for people to understand what the issue is. … I'm not sure that we were offering them a solution to a problem that they didn't think existed."
At one point last spring, some 8,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses, clerks, and others crowded into the Statehouse and onto its grounds to protest passage of a law that they declared to be a frontal assault on working Ohioans.
That law will never take effect.
"They scapegoat public employees who are hard-working, honest-to-God [employees], and do a great job," said Richard Trumka, the national president of the AFL-CIO who spent the campaign's final days in Ohio to rally the labor troops.
"They scapegoat. For what? To give more tax breaks to the people who caused this [economic trouble]," he said. "People are saying, ‘Enough. Enough. We're not going to take that anymore.'?"
It remains to be seen whether majority Republicans will seek to enact provisions separately that require workers to pay at least 15 percent of their health-care premiums and 10 percent of their paychecks toward their pensions.
"My view is when people speak like this in a campaign referendum, you have to listen if you're a public servant," Mr. Kasich said. "There isn't any question about that. I've heard their voices. I understand their decision, and frankly I respect what people have to say. … It requires me to take a deep breath and to spend some time reflecting on what happened here."
Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, the only big-city Ohio mayor to publicly endorse Issue 2, shrugged off the defeat, saying he was "not emotionally attached to this issue one way or another."
"As I have stated before, this [was] about options," he said. "I don't have any more dollars than I did before. For mayors running cities, it would have given us more tools in the tool box."
Mr. Bell said Toledo's general fund budget for 2012, facing millions in red ink, would have been in better shape because union employees would have been required to pay more for health care and their pensions. "The budget will be much more austere and layoffs are more likely without those measures, he said. "It could have been beneficial to the taxpayers, so that is why I endorsed [Issue 2]."
Democrats had painted Issue 2 as a referendum not only on Senate Bill 5 but on Mr. Kasich's policies.
"This was an unprecedented campaign," Sue Taylor, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said. "Tonight, Ohioans said loud and clear that taking away the rights of workers does not solve our state's economic problems. Voters chose to support the idea that workers should retain their right to have a voice and dignity in their workplace."
Even as the first votes were reported Tuesday night, it was organized labor's night in Toledo. They celebrated with hot dogs, beer, and cupcakes decorated with an anti-Issue 2 theme.
Usually Democrats and labor supporters greet election-night returns at the United Auto Workers hall on Ashland Avenue. This time, the party and the unions gathered at the Teamsters Local 20 hall off the Anthony Wayne Trail because it was the nerve center for the anti-Issue 2 campaign in Toledo.
"The enthusiasm just carried over and over in this whole campaign. I couldn't be more proud of the people who worked on this," George Tucker, executive secretary-treasurer of the Toledo Council AFL-CIO, said. He said he doesn't expect Mr. Kasich and his fellow Republicans to let up in what he sees as an anti-worker agenda. "They're going to keep coming at the working people again and again and again," Mr. Tucker said.
When it was announced Issue 2 had been defeated in Ohio, the hall erupted in chants of "No! No! No!," while state Rep. Matt Szollosi (D., Oregon) held hands aloft in a victory salute with Teamsters Local 20 President Bill Lichtenwald and Mr. Tucker.
Mr. Szollosi alluded to the governor's warning to opponents early in his administration that if they aren't on his bus, they'll be run over by it.
"We're not on the bus and neither are  percent of the people in the state of Ohio," he said. "The people have spoken loud and clear. They want the governor to keep his campaign promises and focus on jobs. He spent the first year union-busting."
Mr. Kasich and GOP legislative leaders had used Senate Bill 5 as a key component of their agenda to rein in the government's cost and improve Ohio's business climate.
Mr. Kasich said Tuesday night there would be "no bailout coming" for local governments. "Frankly, there's no money," he said.
Senate Bill 5 would have, among numerous other things, prohibited all public workers from striking, limited subjects for contract negotiations, required workers to pay at least 15 percent of their health-care premiums, prohibited local governments from paying any portion of the employee's share of his pension contributions, and scrapped binding arbitration as the means to bring finality to public-safety contract disputes.
Even as the same voters were adopting Issue 3, a constitutional amendment designed to send President Obama a message against his health-care reform law, the White House praised them for the stance they took on Issue 2.
"The President congratulates the people of Ohio for standing up for workers and defeating efforts to strip away collective-bargaining rights, and commends the teachers, firefighters, nurses, police officers, and other workers who took a stand to defend those rights," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
Jon Stainbrook, Lucas County Republican Party chairman, said the defeat was not a reflection on the governor. "When John Kasich was elected governor, he was left with a state greatly in need of reform," he said. "So at least John Kasich attempted to reform government where [former Democratic Gov.] Ted Strickland did not."
Lucas County Democratic Party Chairman Ron Rothenbuhler said the ripple effects of Tuesday's vote will be felt across the entire country.
"The reaction is that people still believe that sitting down at the table to negotiate is still a better way to communicate," he said.
Both sides claimed they were on the side of the middle class. But supporters of Issue 2 apparently failed to sell their message that the law's survival would be a victory for middle-class taxpayers and private-sector workers who have seen their own pay stagnate and health-care costs climb.
Mr. Trumka said the largely Republican and corporate backers of Issue 2 miscalculated if they thought they could turn private-sector unions against public employee unions.
"Kasich's overreached," he said. "Kasich has a pretty radical agenda that he's trying to advance. This is about more than him. This is about whether common people, working people, can come together and change the economy so that they can make a decent living and raise their family. This is about defending the middle class. This is about protecting public safety and public education. …
"Kasich happens to be the person who threw the spear," he said.
Staff writers Ignazio Messina and Tom Troy contributed to this report.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 614-221-0496.