Former Cincinnati councilman Jeff Berding, left, and former Cleveland area congressman Dennis Eckart debate Issue 2. Mr. Berding favors Senate Bill 5, while Mr. Eckart urges a vote against it.
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CLEVELAND — Both sides of the fight over the fate of Ohio’s new public-employee collective bargaining law appealed Monday for votes in labor-rich Cuyahoga County in a room where everybody appeared to have already made up their minds.
In a locally televised debate hosted by the City Club of Cleveland, Dennis Eckart, a former area Democratic congressman, spoke for the anti-Senate Bill 5 group We Are Ohio. He said the law passed nearly three decades ago that legalized public employee collective bargaining brought order to chaos.
“In the years before the collective-bargaining law, we were averaging more than 60 strikes a year,’’ he said. “Blue flu was the rage. The possibility of forcing people together, even in times of a growing economy, was impossible. We haven’t had a strike in this state in a year. We’ve had 49 in the last 12 years.
“Yes, negotiations might start out extreme,’’ Mr. Eckart said. “Yes, negotiations might begin with posturing. But when both sides come to the table collectively and equally in power for the right to talk to the boss about the terms of employment, that makes the fundamental difference.’’
But Jeffrey Berding, a former Democratic Cincinnati city councilman representing the pro-Senate Bill 5 group Building a Better Ohio, said the labor peace seen in Ohio has been a result of local governments caving to union demands that taxpayers can no longer afford.
“If workers are allowed to walk off the job, what kind of government do we have?’’ he asked. “Federal government employees have long been prohibited from striking. … It’s not fair to taxpayers to have their services threatened and kids’ education threatened by strikes … You know, [President Franklin D. Roosevelt], in very strong words, did not support giving public unions collective bargaining. He said it would create anarchy, and certainly that’s what strikes would do.”
Voters are already casting ballots for the Nov. 8 election in which they are asked to weigh in on Issue 2, a referendum on Ohio’s new law restricting the clout of public employee unions. Monday’s debate was filled with people from political party organizations; police, firefighter, and other public unions; private unions, and representatives of the political action committees on both sides.
Senate Bill 5, among numerous other provisions, would prohibit strikes by all public employees, restrict what they can negotiate, require them to pay at least 15 percent of their health-care premiums, prohibit local governments from paying any portion of employees’ share of pension contributions, and eliminate binding arbitration as a means to bring finality to contract disputes.
At one point, the discussion shifted from the contents of contracts and the negotiations leading up to them to provisions that directly address the internal operations of the unions themselves. Senate Bill 5 would prohibit the automatic deduction of “fair share fees’’ from the paychecks of those who refuse to join a workplace union and make it easier for workers to seek to have the local bargaining unit decertified.
“When I’m sitting there as a locally elected official and I hear union bosses say lay off all the young workers, lay off the youngest police firefighters, lay off the youngest police officers … that’s not a system where the unions are working and advocating for what’s in the best interests of the workers,’’ Mr. Berding said.
“For [union workers] to sit down and arrogantly say we’re going to lay off our youngest workers before we give up anything, even though workers in the private sector are sacrificing…, the only way you get unions to change their behavior is to threaten the pocket book of the unions,’’ he said.
Mr. Eckart took direct aim at Mr. Berding’s use of the word “threaten,’’ saying that wouldn’t play well in Cuyahoga County, where recently reorganized government is counting on worker cooperation.
“We know that to move ahead to encourage consolidation, to bring out service changes and mergers, you don’t do that by threatening the very workers who are a part of this, and you don’t do it by creating a winner-take-all collective bargaining system that makes it impossible to achieve results,’’ he said.
Mr. Eckart frequently invoked the name of Republican Gov. John Kasich, repeating a tactic used by We Are Ohio in its ads. Polls show that Ohioans have a low opinion of Mr. Kasich’s job performance.
Mr. Eckart argued that budget cuts led by Mr. Kasich and the GOP-controlled General Assembly created the local government’s financial problems.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.