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Published: Wednesday, 2/23/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Thousands fill Statehouse to support union rights

Strickland promises to fight labor bill

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

Demonstrators among the thousands outside the Statehouse press to get inside the building. The highway Patrol initially limited the crowd in the Statehouse to 2,000, but several Democratic senators persuaded troopers to allow more inside.

Demonstrators among the thousands outside the Statehouse press to get inside the building. The highway Patrol initially limited the crowd in the Statehouse to 2,000, but several Democratic senators persuaded troopers to allow more inside.
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COLUMBUS -- As thousands protested inside and outside the Statehouse Tuesday, the man who once led Ohio pledged that a bill that would strip state employees of collective-bargaining rights will be challenged if it becomes law.

"If this were to pass, we will not be finished," vowed former Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat. "We will go to the ballot. We will go to the people. We will not see fundamental rights stripped away from working Ohioans without an ongoing battle."

In a fund-raising e-mail sent to supporters, the man who now leads Ohio, Republican John Kasich, showed no signs of backing down.

"Change is difficult," he wrote. "There are those who are vested in the current system who will fight to see that the status quo is the order of the day. You've seen it in Wisconsin. You're seeing it in Ohio now."

The state estimated that some 5,200 people crowded into the Statehouse, onto its snow-covered grounds, and into a theater in a state office tower across the street to protest Senate Bill 5 as the Senate Insurance, Commerce, and Labor Committee held its fourth hearing on the bill.

Their shouts at times drowned out testimony before the committee, which was meeting a floor away.

No immediate vote is scheduled. Sen. Kevin Bacon (R., Columbus), the committee's chairman, conceded that some members of his caucus have "concerns" about a provision that would eliminate final binding arbitration as a means to resolve disputes between government and police and firefighters. Ohio law forbids such employees from striking.

"Ultimately, I think the bill is going to come out of committee and come out of the Senate," he said. "We do have concerns, and that's OK. Those issues should cause people to stop and think and not have knee-jerk reactions."

Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) said he believes eliminating binding arbitration goes too far. Mr. Kasich has taken a particular aim at this issue, saying it allows a third-party arbitrator to dictate terms for which taxpayers must foot the bill.

"I do think that binding arbitration, the process itself, can be improved, but I think getting rid of binding arbitration altogether presents an unworkable situation for a lot of our policemen," Mr. Wagoner said "There are ways to allow for release valves for these sorts of situations, with policemen especially, public safety, and firefighters.

HIGHLIGHTS OF SENATE BILL 5 

  • Eliminates collective bargaining for state government employees, including those at public universities and colleges.
  • Eliminates final binding arbitration as the means for local governments to settle contract disputes with police and fire employees, who are legally barred from striking. If a contract agreement can't be reached, the terms of the prior contract would be extended one year while talks continue.
  • Allows government employer to implement all or part of a fact-finder's recommendations if either side rejects the report.
  • Prohibits the use of seniority as the sole factor determining the order of public employee layoffs. Efficiency and other factors must also be considered.
  • Prohibits a public employer from picking up a worker's pension contribution.
  • Removes health-care benefits from the negotiating table and allows government to impose a plan for all public employees. The employee would pay at least 20 percent of premium costs.
  • Eliminates mandatory sick leave for teachers from state law.
  • Allows the hiring of permanent replacement workers by government to replace striking employees.
  • Prohibits teacher contracts from limiting class sizes.
  • Eliminates automatic pay increases for most public employees and substitutes a merit-based pay system.

"Public safety is at risk there," he said. "We've got to find some way to allow those situations to defuse … but doing it in a fair way. I think the system we have now isn't as fair as it needs to be."

In addition to outlawing collective bargaining on behalf of all state workers, the bill would overhaul bargaining rights at the local government and school levels to tilt the balance of power toward government.

The decision at one point by the highway patrol to limit the number of people who could enter the Statehouse to roughly 2,000 only angered the crowds inside and outside that much more. Several Democratic senators, including Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo), successfully protested until the highway patrol let more people into the building.

"We've gone from one end of the Statehouse to the other, opening up the doors, and saying to the troopers 'You have to arrest us. We are opening up these doors,' " Ms. Fedor said. She said those efforts led to hundreds more entering the building.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson arrived in the hearing room Tuesday night, fresh from a similar battle in Wisconsin.

"This is clearly a national strategy to crush unions," he said outside the hearing room. " ... This clearly is an ideological struggle over which way America will go. We are facing record-breaking home foreclosures, and the homeowners of those foreclosed homes are not only not getting their homes back, they're getting their jobs taken."

Labor unions representing workers in the private sector joined their public employee brethren to swell the number of protesters.

"This is a vendetta, and it begins with public employees," said Dennis Duffey, secretary-treasurer of the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Council from Toledo.

Chris Littleton is president of the Ohio Liberty Council, the closest thing the state has to a statewide Tea Party organization. He told the committee that he fears that failure to address collective bargaining now will ultimately lead to major layoffs at the state and local levels, as has occurred in the private sector.

"We make choices in a very cold world, and that is the world of mathematics," he said. "Math doesn't care what we feel or what is fair. Math only knows truth, and the truth is our state is broke. Many of our cities and counties are broke, and everyone is well-aware our nation is broke."

Union leaders stopped short of vowing a ballot challenge to repeal the law if it should pass, saying they are concentrating on the fight at hand. They did, however, repeatedly urge lawmakers to "slow down" the march toward passage.

The timing of passage could prove critical as to whether the law would be challenged on the Nov. 8, 2011, ballot or be delayed until November, 2012. That's when it could be used to draw Democrats to the ballot at a time when President Obama could be seeking re-election.

If the bill passes after the first week of April, a successful petition challenge would put the bill on hold until voters would get a chance to weigh in next year.

Lynn Smith, a first-grade teacher at Toledo Public Schools' Birmingham Elementary, told the committee that her city school earned an excellent rating despite having 93 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch because of their family incomes.

"Many of the forward-thinking initiatives that Toledo Public Schools have implemented came about as a result of collective bargaining," she said. " ... I feel this is a system that does work. This bill would degrade that collaboration."

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



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