You may have heard about that controversial bill in Ohio that limits public workers’ collective bargaining rights. It was signed into law Thursday night by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and it’s one of several new laws affecting unions that have popped up in our region. Dan Bobkoff and Ida Lieszkovszky of the Changing Gears team wanted to get beyond the rhetoric and answer why some of these provisions are in Senate Bill 5 in the first place.
First, a quick review of what this new law does.
- It does not get rid of union negotiations completely, but it limits them. Union members will no longer be able to negotiate for benefits.
- It also ditches binding arbitration.
- It makes striking by union members illegal.
- It puts a greater emphasis on merit versus seniority when it comes to promotions.
Whether you agree or disagree with all that, the debate has been contentious.
Union members see the issue as one that could “break the backs” of unions and “take away the voice of the people.” Ohio Senator Shannon Jones, who wrote the bill, says, “Most importantly, it is not an attack on the middle class.”
But there are other views. Mike Bell has been the mayor of Toledo for a little over a year now.
He said, “There’s a lot of rhetoric to this. but for me, I’m just looking for some basic things. I’m not trying to hurt anybody.”
Bell is an independent. He says he used to be a firefighter: “I was not only a firefighter. I was a laid off firefighter. I was the fire chief. I was the state fire marshall. And, now I’m the mayor.”
Basically, he’s been on all sides of the table. When he took office, the city had no money, but it had expensive contracts with its police unions that he couldn’t change. There were restrictions that said the city could not assign a police officer to a different shift. That’s what his predecessor tried to do; reassign police to the afternoon or night shift. Now the city is facing a $500,000 fine for breach of contract.
Bell says that controversy didn’t leave the mayor with many options. “The only solution that the chief would have had was to leave those shifts blank–meaning we wouldn’t have a third shift or a partial second shift.” Alternatively, he could “call back the 75 police officers who were laid off, which created a financial problem.”
Under the old rules, Bell said it’s a no-win situation. He’s not anti-union and does not love everything in Senate Bill 5, but he is grateful the law allows him to “push a reset button.”
With Senate Bill 5 becoming law, he would be able to throw out a contract when the city is in a financial crisis. When Bell was a laid off firefighter many years ago, he said he learned it’s better to take some cuts in benefits or pay than lose your job. And, he’s more than happy to negotiate a better contract for the public workers when the city sees better times.
And then there’s Hugh Quill. He is all for taking health care benefits off the negotiating table completely. He says; “taxpayers really don’t care how we get the best price with the best plan.”
Quill is a Democrat who does consulting work for the public sector. He does not support all of what makes up Senate Bill 5. However, he thinks changes to public workers’ health care is a good thing. He said, “It’s a hugely volatile item in the budget of any local government, of any school, of any college and university.”
Under the new law, all public workers are getting the same health benefits, instead of the old system in which every school district and police department would bargain for its own plan. Quill says bargaining on behalf of 50,000 people gives the state more leverage to get a good deal with health care companies than bargaining for a local union of perhaps 500 people.
Senate Bill 5 also requires public employees to contribute at least 15 percent of their health care plans. Now, many pay little or nothing.
We also talked to Julie Schafer, the School Board President for the Copley-Fairlawn school district about 45 minutes south of Cleveland. She says unions will sometimes bully school boards by threatening to go on strike. But she says this bill would “give more freedom to negotiations and that’s really what’s necessary. There needs to be more latitude to be able to do what’s in the best interests of students and taxpayers.”
Schafer says she is skeptical this bill will have a long life after being signed by Ohio Governor John Kasich. Unions are already gathering signatures to challenge the bill. They hope to get enough to put a referendum on the ballot this November. Both sides are already campaigning.
All of this sounds very similar to what happened in 1958, when Republicans tried to make Ohio a right-to-work state, but then opponents put it on the ballot, where it was defeated.
Greg Saltzman, a professor at Albion College in Michigan and an expert on the region’s labor history. says the same might take place today. “Certainly, it’s a high risk strategy.”
Saltzman says that Ohio has been on a kind of see-saw when it comes to public sector union rights. Strikes were banned in 1947, except that there were actually more strikes when they were technically illegal. Then in 1983, public sector unions officially got the right to collectively bargain and strike. The number of strikes dropped. .
Professor Saltzman says we’re going through an interesting period. “Wisconsin, Ohio and other states that are taking away bargaining rights that have already been granted, that’s really quite unusual.”
He says the last time this happened on a national basis was back in 1947. Now this issue is spreading across the region, and the country.