Fight For Ohio Union Rights Turns To The Ballot Box

April 18, 2011

Sonari Glinton

Over the past few months, Ohio has had its share of fighting over public sector unions' collective bargaining rights.

Earlier this year, thousands marched on the statehouse in Columbus, but those protests didn't get unions or their Democratic supporters very far. Senate Bill 5 passed the Republican-dominated Ohio Legislature on March 30 and Gov. John Kasich signed it into law the next day.

Now, Ohio unions are turning to Plan B: a good old-fashioned petition drive to get a referendum on the measure on the ballot this fall. And union members are saying the governor's action may have actually helped reinvigorate the state's labor movement.

'If It Passes Here, It's A Disease That's Gonna Spread'

About 100 or so locals recently crammed into an Irish pub in Portsmouth, Ohio, at the very southern tip of the state. They gathered to help repeal Senate Bill 5.

Austin Keyser, of a local electricians union, addressed the crowd.

"I don't care what they do. If they take away the right to strike and they take away arbitration, people are still going to demand to be treated with dignity," he said. "And there will still be strikes, and there will still be concerted activity to force them to pay a decent wage."

Public and private sector workers are uniting to fight Senate Bill 5. They need to get more than 230,000 signatures to put the issue of collective bargaining for public workers on the ballot this fall.

Portsmouth firefighter Nick Hamilton says the move to restrict the bargaining power of public workers has awakened Ohio's labor supporters.

"You lower the bar for the unions, you lower the bar for the whole country," he says. "Everybody realizes that Ohio is a politically empowered state and if it passes here, it's a disease that's gonna spread."

Legislators 'Ignite A Fire In The Populace'

Meanwhile, the state's Democrats are feeling anything but politically empowered. They lost the governor's seat, control of the Ohio House and seats in the Republican-controlled state Senate all in the 2010 elections. But Democratic state Senate Minority Leader Capri Cafaro says that won't keep Ohioans down.

"Anytime the government tries to take away rights that currently exist, it is going to ignite a fire in the populace, and I think that's what we've seen in the state of Ohio," she says.

According to Cafaro, Republicans have awakened a sleeping giant, and she predicts there will be consequences down the road.

"The public at large feels as if the Legislature and the executive branch are kind of abusing their power — that they are overreaching in a way that is unprecedented, even under one-party rule," she says.

Republican state Senate President Tom Niehaus says he understands the protesters' concerns.

"Change is scary," he says. "And certainly if I were told some of the things — if I were told some of the lies — that some of these union members were told, I'd be out protesting too."

According to Niehaus, Ohio's government is in trouble. The state has a two-year $8 billion deficit and he says voters need to understand that they will ultimately benefit from limited collective bargaining.

"When you give a local school district, or you give a city council or a township trustee the ability — through Senate Bill 5 — to negotiate a reasonable contract with its employees, that helps every taxpayer in the state of Ohio," he says.

Niehaus and other state Republican leaders say they're ready to continue the conversation about unions at the ballot box. But union leaders say it's not concessions they're fighting for — it's survival. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.