COLUMBUS, Ohio - Labor leaders dropped their campaign Thursday for a November ballot issue that would give most full-time workers seven paid sick days a year, conceding they shared the governor's concern over a negative and divisive fight.
The Service Employees International Union said what tipped the balance were assurances from Gov. Ted Strickland and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown that they will push for a nearly identical measure at the federal level next year.
The campaign, dubbed Ohioans for Healthy Families, had spent nearly $1.8 million in Ohio but will ask the Secretary of State's office to drop the issue from the ballot, said Becky Williams, president of SEIU District 1199. Supporters in August had submitted 240,000 petition signatures to place the issue before voters.
The issue had been wildly popular in public opinion polls, but opponents suggested Thursday that the issue was dropped because it was quickly losing steam as criticism mounted. Business leaders and Strickland argued the mandate would cripple companies during already hard economic times.
"There is no question that we were about to get into a very divisive and unproductive debate," Williams said.
After he failed to strike a compromise earlier this month, Strickland, a Democrat, came out against the measure, opposing union interests that he supports and that contributed generously to his 2006 run for governor.
The proposal would have required companies with at least 25 employees to give those working over 34 hours a week seven sick days a year, with unused sick time carrying over to the next year.
Advocates said 2.2 million Ohio workers don't have any paid sick leave for themselves or their families. But the National Federation of Independent Business in Ohio released a study in August that said a sick-day mandate would cost the state 75,000 jobs in the next five years.
Strickland and Brown joined advocates at Thursday's news conference announcing the decision to drop the ballot issue.
Both said they anticipated Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama to pursue the issue on a national level if elected in November, as part of an agenda focussed on working families.
Strickland said he made no deal with the union nor did he apply political pressure to get the measure pulled.
"The only thing that I did was indicate that I would support the federal legislation," he said. Brown has joined Obama and Democratic heavyweight Ted Kennedy as a sponsor of the federal bill.
David Zanotti of the Ohio Roundtable, which was fighting the ballot issue, said it appeared that the governor and the union were trying to use the issue as a tool to get people to vote for Obama.
"What kind of a lame excuse is it that they (the SEIU) were afraid of a shrill campaign?" Zanotti said, referring to a written statement released by the union. "Excuse me, this is organized labor afraid of vitriol and shrillness?"
Williams said the SEIU took its decision seriously. As opposition heated up, she said, an advertising war that would scare off businesses seemed a real possibility.
"Ultimately, there was a decision made that that fight just didn't make sense for Ohio workers," she said.
Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, who serves as state development director, said opposing the Ohio initiative while supporting the federal bill is not contradictory. A federal law would put all states on a level playing field, and going through Congress would provide more opportunity for debate, he said.
Ohio's Republican-led Legislature declined to take up the sick-day proposal earlier this year when it was introduced as a citizen initiative because it saw the measure as deeply flawed.
House Speaker Jon Husted, a Kettering Republican, expressed relief Thursday that the proposal was no longer a threat.
"This is a victory for all Ohioans," he said in a statement. "This proposal would have hurt Ohio businesses and driven jobs out of our state. It was poorly crafted, confused voters and would have placed Ohio at a significant disadvantage to compete with other states, much less in the global economy."
Husted said he opposes a federal mandate, however.
"Just as this would have hurt Ohio's competitiveness with Indiana, federal legislation would have the same effect with India and Indonesia," he said.
Williams said the union's research had consistently shown that requiring seven paid sick days in Ohio would not have hurt the state's economy. She parted ways with Strickland on that issue.
Brown argued that a federal sick-day mandate would improve the country's global competitiveness. He said the U.S. is the only major industrialized nation that does not require employers to offer paid sick leave.