In 1983, it was the Democrats who used their voting muscle to enact a law giving Ohio’s 500,000 public employees the right to bargain for wages and working conditions, and in some cases to strike.
That law, which ended an era of public employee strikes, passed both houses of the Ohio General Assembly without a single Republican vote.
The law replaced the so-called Ferguson Act that had applied to labor relations in the public sector for nearly four decades. The 1983 law passed the House, 59-38, on June 28 that year. Two Democrats joined the 36 Republicans in opposition.
The vote one day later in the Ohio Senate was 17-15 along party lines.
Democratic Gov. Richard Celeste signed the bill into law on July 6, 1983, and it took effect on April 1, 1984.
The law loosened restrictions on government workers’ collective bargaining, even as the prohibition on strikes by public safety employees such as police, firefighters, and prison guards remained in place.
Those essential employees, however, were set on a path of fact-finding and mediation that dramatically reduced the numbers of illegal walkouts.
Democrats controlled the House, Senate, the governorship, and all other statewide elective offices. Today, it is the Republicans who control the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of state government.
And today, many leaders of school districts and Ohio cities, including Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, are advocating for some changes in the 1983 law that they say are needed to restore balance that they believe has tipped in favor of public employee unions.
Toledo Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat told a Senate hearing this week that local governments should be allowed to reopen existing contracts when revenues plummet as they did last year in the city, setting up fights that continue Friday with a local police union over forced midcontract concessions. He said, however, that the city does not support revoking collective-bargaining rights.
A bill introduced in the state Senate would virtually repeal the rights created by the 1983 law and would abolish the right of state workers, including state university professors, to bargain collectively.
And it would end the right of police and firefighter unions to take deadlocked contract negotiations into binding arbitration. It would stop short of making public sector strikes, except for emergency workers, illegal.
While generally supporting Senate Bill 5, Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, has said the budget he will propose next month for the next two years would go even further, outlawing strikes by all public employees.
Former state Rep. Dwight Wise of Fremont, a Democrat, said he voted for the bill in 1983 because workers didn’t have enough rights then.
“We don’t have near as many strikes as we used to. I think management and labor sit down and work things out together,” said Mr. Wise, now a retired farmer. “I don’t think labor wants to take advantage of anyone. They want to put in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wages.”
“Prior to 1983, the working people were taken advantage of a lot of times,” Mr. Wise said.
At the time, some Republicans predicted that the law would cause Ohio to experience even more strikes.
But that didn’t happen. According to the State Employment Relations Board, 67 public-sector strikes occurred in 1978, six years before enactment of the new collective- bargaining law. In 2008, there were three, two involving schools and the third, a city.
Rep. Michael Fox, a Hamilton County Republican, said the bill was “the most destructive piece of legislation ever thrust upon the people of this state.”
Columbus Rep. Dana Deshler, a conservative Republican, likened the bill to “a legal Frankenstein out on the Ohio landscape.”
The advocates of the bill were just as adamant that it was a move in the right direction.
The late Arthur Wilkowski, a Democratic state representative from Toledo, saw an irony in the national support then for Poland’s union Solidarity movement.
“Strange indeed is the situation where in this country we openly urge the people of Poland to strike against their government,” he said, while at the same time many opposed the right of public sector unions in the United States to strike.
The sponsor, Sen. Eugene Branstool (D., Utica), told his colleagues, “I believe we should give this bill a chance. I believe this bill is going to work.”
Former state Rep. John A. Galbraith (R., Maumee) opposed the 1983 legislation and offered an amendment that would have imposed severe penalties on unions that promoted or engaged in illegal strikes. The amendment was tabled, 68-31.
“What we’re being offered here today is another cup of poison for the people of this state,” Mr. Galbraith said at the time.
Now, Mr. Galbraith, 87, who still works full-time managing the apartment buildings he owns, said he wishes he could take back the statement he made.
“It’s turned out to be a pretty good piece of legislation. I think I made a mistake,” Mr. Galbraith said. He said he defended the old law, the Ferguson Act, even though he felt it needed to be updated.
In March, 1983, three months before the final bill passed, Mr. Galbraith introduced his own bill that allowed collective bargaining, but enacted punishment for unions that encouraged or supported illegal strikes by abolishing those unions’ rights to have dues deducted from employee paychecks.
“The situation in Ohio has been pretty peaceful as far as labor relations with public employees,” Mr. Galbraith said. “They’re trying to undo a pretty successful law. I don’t think it’s been harmful in any way.”
Also veterans of that fight are James Ruvolo of Ottawa Hills, who was then the state Democratic Party chairman, and George Tucker of Toledo, now executive secretary of the Greater Northwest Ohio Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, who was then president of a city employee union, Local 7 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
Mr. Ruvolo said the law may need to be “tweaked,” but not repealed.
He said the introduction of binding arbitration to resolve disputes in the safety forces “was an acknowledgement that strikes by safety forces were really a problem and Toledo was a prime example of that. What happened in Toledo in 1979 was a terrible thing.”
Police and firefighters, who already had collective-bargaining rights in Toledo, went on strike after reaching an impasse with the city in negotiations, with disputes ranging over pay raises, benefits, and the number of officers and firefighters assigned to each crew.
The walkout on July 1, 1979, resulted in 48 hours of mayhem, including arson and violence, with Lucas County sheriff’s deputies left to try to keep the peace.
A judge’s injunction ended the strike and negotiations resumed July 3.
Mr. Ruvolo acknowledged that the Republicans are in the same position now that Democrats were in 1983.
“Most laws need to have bipartisanship not to fall into a partisan fight,” he said.
Mr. Tucker said the Toledo public employee strike of 1979 was one of the events that galvanized the legislature to authorize public employee bargaining.
“That’s what basically led to the collective-bargaining bill ... because the [Toledo] police were on strike. I think this was the one that showed that there had to be some means to get a settlement,” Mr. Tucker said.
“And since that law, the police and fire don’t have a right to strike, they go to arbitration. But the other unions do have the right to strike and there have been less strikes since that law went into effect than when it was illegal to strike,” Mr. Tucker said.
The legislation pending in the state Senate would eliminate the collective-bargaining authority of state government employees, including those at public universities and community colleges, and substitute a merit-pay system.
It also would eliminate 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.
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