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COLUMBUS -- It's been 14 years since Ohio voters felt strongly enough to take the law into their own hands to undo what their elected officials had done.
Although that overwhelming 1997 vote to strike down a Republican-passed law reducing the state's workers' compensation benefits bears some similarities to the expected ballot fight over Senate Bill 5, it took place in a different political and economic environment than what Ohio is facing now.
According to U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the number of Ohio workers who belonged to unions in 2010 was about 655,000, representing a new low of 13.7 percent of all employment. That compares to about 931,000 in 1997, or 18.9 percent, when the workers' compensation law was trounced.
The bid to repeal a newly signed bill making the most dramatic changes in Ohio's collective-bargaining law in nearly three decades appeals to many of the same constituencies as 1997's Issue 2.
It will prove to be the latest test of the power of organized labor in Ohio.
"The constituencies from 1997 and the referendum [on Senate Bill 5] are similar in the sense that organized labor is central to both," said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
"But there are some differences," he said. "This bill is focused on public-sector unions. Private-sector unions have shown a great deal of solidarity, but this will not directly affect them the way the workers' compensation bill did back in 1997. Also, the constituents who receive public services that might be impacted by the changes in the law governing collective bargaining are likely to be much more involved."
Republican Gov. John Kasich signed Senate Bill 5 late Thursday.
We Are Ohio, the coalition opposing Senate Bill 5, spent the weekend gathering about 3,000 signatures -- at least 1,000 are needed -- to put proposed petition language before Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine so that he can verify that the language accurately represents what the ballot issue would do. Those initial petitions were filed with the secretary of state's office Monday.
Once the organization gets the attorney general's approval, it will begin the process of collecting a minimum of 231,147 valid signatures of registered voters to put the issue on the ballot. All of this must be done within a 90-day window that opened with the bill's filing on Friday.
Among numerous other provisions, Senate Bill 5 would prohibit teachers, police, firefighters, clerks, and other public employees from striking, limit the subjects that may be negotiated, mandate that workers pay at least 15 percent of health insurance premiums, and prohibit unions from automatically deducting "fair share" fees from workers who opt not to join the union.
The bill would prohibit local governments from picking up any portion of an employee's contribution to his pension and would scrap automatic step or longevity pay increases in favor of a yet-to-be-defined performance pay system.
Columbus lawyer Philip Fulton, who was actively involved in the campaign to strike down Senate Bill 45 in 1997, said he expects the coalition in opposition to Senate Bill 5 to be even broader.
"With workers' compensation, a lot of people haven't been touched by it," he said. "Senate Bill 5 involves teachers, police, and firefighters, so it touches everybody. When we did the referendum in 1997, we had to explain to people why they should be concerned about workers' compensation. There will not be quite as much of an education problem with the collective-bargaining bill."
It remains unclear what type of coalition will form to fight for Senate Bill 5. The 1997 workers' compensation law that reduced benefits for injured workers brought out the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and private-sector employers, who outspent the opposition $7.8 million to $2.4 million.
Still, 57 percent of voters supported repeal of the law.
Given that Senate Bill 5 affects only public sector employees, will the Ohio Chamber be willing to spend the kind of money needed to counter the unions?
"Senate Bill 5 was not our piece of legislation," Chamber President Andy Doehrel said. "We didn't ask anybody to introduce it, but we do think it's important. It was among the recommendations from our Redesigning Ohio report in December. This was a piece of the puzzle, and that's how we're viewing it, along with prison changes, charter agencies, and all sorts of other things."
If Senate Bill 5 makes the ballot, the issue would be taken to the chamber's board for a decision as to what involvement, if any, it would have in defending the law.
‘Night and day’
Mr. Doehrel said the 1997 referendum and the potential 2011 one are like "night and day." Like Mr. Fulton, he said workers' compensation was a tougher issue to educate voters about. Senate Bill 5 is easier to grasp.
"When you're talking about the cost of government, everybody has growing awareness and concern," he said.
"We saw it in last November's election, which was really a referendum on the cost of government. … When you look at the discussion down in Washington and funding at that level, there's more general awareness across the board."
It's also a different economic environment today, Mr. Doehrel said, with everyone from the state to city councils to school boards dealing with budget shortfalls.
Another big unknown is whether some national political organization outside Ohio -- such as the Tea Party, Americans for Prosperity, or the Republican Governors Association -- would decide to make a stand in defense of the law, either because of the issue's importance in other states or to demonstrate support for Mr. Kasich.
"This may be the only referendum of its nature anywhere in the country this fall, and it comes at an interesting time," Mr. Green said. "We're preparing for the 2012 election at a time when balancing state budgets is very much on people's minds. One could easily imagine that this would become very important nationally with major groups trying to influence the outcome.
"Given what Ohio symbolizes to a lot of people as a bellwether state, a win for either side could be seen as a great symbolic victory," he said.
The Washington-based Americans for Prosperity, the nonprofit organization founded by brothers David and Charles Koch, has testified in favor of Senate Bill 5. But it's unclear what role the group would play if the repeal effort reaches the ballot.
"I anticipate that we will continue to support Senate Bill 5. There's not a ballot issue fight right now," said Rebecca Heimlich, Ohio coordinator for Americans for Prosperity. "We believe that Senate Bill 5 is an important reform needed to bring public-employee pay in line with the private sector and to give flexibility to governments to manage their work forces to bring jobs and prosperity back to Ohio."
While not committing the group to a Senate Bill 5 fight, Ms. Heimlich said the key would be to counter the contention that the bill is an attack on the middle class when it is, she argued, a strengthening of middle-class workers' rights not to belong to a union if they don't want to.
The coalition fighting Senate Bill 5 contends its broad membership will carry it to victory.
"This is much broader than a labor movement," said spokesman Dennis Willard. "This is a citizens' movement. Polling shows that six out of 10, or more, people support workers' rights. They feel this is unfair, what is happening to people and their families.
"People are coming up to [petition circulators] and asking to sign this," he said.
"There's a great public awareness about this issue. There's almost a shorthand going on. They're asking, 'Would you like to sign a petition to repeal …' and people are already moving toward them."
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com, or 614-221-0495.