Backers defend need for bargaining bill; unions promise referendum

COLUMBUS — In an historic day at the Ohio Statehouse, Republican lawmakers pushed through the most sweeping reforms to collective bargaining in more than 25 years as more than 500 union members raucously shouted in protest outside the House chamber.

After nearly four hours of floor debate, the House voted 53-44, with five Republicans and all Democrats present voting in opposition. The Senate then immediately voted 17-16 to agree to the House changes, sending the bill to Gov. John Kasich, who could sign it as early as Friday.

The vote sparked shouts of “Repeal it!” and “Shame on you!” from protesters in the House balcony.

The landmark bill unravels the collective bargaining law that Democrats passed in 1983 when they controlled the General Assembly and governor’s office.

Union leaders are expected to collect the required 231,147 valid signatures from Ohio voters to put the law up for a referendum on Nov. 8. The campaign is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars and draw big money from both sides, including from unions, business groups and out-of-state organizations.

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“This isn’t over. We’ve just begun to fight, and we’re going to fight like heck,” said House Minority Leader Armond Budish, D-Beachwood.

The campaign against the expected referendum began on Wednesday when the Ohio House Republican Campaign Caucus unveiled, which Speaker William Batchelder, R-Medina, said would debunk myths and untruths about Senate Bill 5.

“We want people to understand what’s going on. And in response to inquiries and questions, we want to be able to provide answers as well,” Batchelder said.

Wednesday’s votes ended weeks of partisan rancor that saw huge anti-Senate Bill 5 crowds convene on the Statehouse to oppose a bill that has attracted national attention. Republicans rejoiced over the passage of a bill they say is needed to help struggling local governments control their costs.

“It’s simply a matter of mathematics,” said state Rep. Ron Young, R-Leroy Twp. “We simply don’t have the money anymore.”

In contrast, Democrats said that the Kasich administration didn’t once call the statewide unions and ask them to re-open contracts to save money.

“Don’t ever lie to us and don’t be hypocritical about it and don’t dance around it as if it’s finances because you know what it is. It’s to bust the unions,” said state Rep. Bob Hagan, D-Youngstown.

Senate Bill 5 outlaws strikes for Ohio’s 360,000 police officers, prison guards, firefighters, teachers and other public employees at the state and local level. It requires public workers to be paid based on merit, bars employers from picking up the worker share of pension contributions and mandates that workers pay at least 15 percent of health care costs. Unions would be allowed to bargain for wages, terms and conditions; and safety forces could negotiate for personal safety equipment. Off the table are staffing levels, privatization decisions, layoff orders, promotion qualifications and other items.

Voters also can petition for a referendum on local employment agreements if the new contract leads to a tax increase, according to the legislation.

Supporters of Senate Bill 5 say they want to give local governments the tools needed to manage their costs in the face of dwindling resources. Opponents call it an attack on the middle class and say unions are ready to help cut costs through concessions.

State Rep. Matt Szollosi, D-Oregon, said the bill includes the elimination of “fair share” fees that workers who don’t want to join the union pay in lieu of dues — a provision that Szollosi said won’t save governments any money but will weaken labor organizations.

State Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said controlling government cost is only one goal of the bill, along with fairness and transparency. Some workers object to their fees being used for political ads that they don’t agree with, he said.

Szollosi said fair share fees — which are subject to itemized reporting — can only be used for contract administration, not politics.

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