Crowds descend as Ohio debates union overhaul

Associated Press

Union groups in Ohio brandished Republican-red T-shirts on Thursday as they sought to ease partisan divisions over a GOP-backed bill that would strip public employees of collective bargaining rights.

The attempted show of solidarity by one of many unions plugging Statehouse hallways in protest of the bill came as a similarly momentous bill stirred a furor in Wisconsin, where Democratic senators fled that state to force Republicans to negotiate. It also took place on the same day tea party groups from around Ohio staged their first organized demonstration in favor of the bill.

The Ohio proposal, sponsored by Republican Sen. Shannon Jones, would abolish collective bargaining rights for state workers and restrict teachers, firefighters, police, university employees and local workers in their bargaining abilities. Unions would lose the ability to negotiate salary schedules and step increases in favor of merit-based raises. Unions would be barred from requiring non-members covered by their contracts to pay dues.

Cincinnati Councilman Jeff Berding told the Senate Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee during the more than eight hours of testimony Thursday that the current situation has become unworkable for cash-strapped cities.

"City leaders, managers — elected to represent the taxpayers — need the ability to pay what we can afford, and not have it dictated by unions gaming the system and unelected third parties," he said. "I must share with you my profound personal disappointment to realize that union leaders and their members prioritize pay benefits over averting layoffs."

Ray Warrick, a member of the Ohio Liberty Council, a coalition of tea party groups, called the days of union protests at the Statehouse "truly sad."

"It's one of those occasions where certain power brokers pit citizens against one another to achieve their goals of self-preservation, retention of power and continued access to the taxpayers' money," he said. "The message they are screaming is that the proponents of Senate Bill 5 somehow are against police officers, firefighters, teachers and other innocent public employee rank and file. That is both false and ridiculous."

Outside the hearing room, thousands of union members — teachers, firefighters, prison guards, police — got a surprise visit by former Gov. Ted Strickland, a union-friendly Democrat ousted in last fall's election by Republican Gov. John Kasich. Strickland had no formal role in the day's activities.

Strickland said he wanted to show his support to union workers — who took a pay freeze and 10 furlough days each year under his administration.

"This has little to do with balancing this year's budget," he said. "I think it's a power grab. It's an attempt to diminish the rights of working people. I think it's an assault of the middle class of this state and it's so unfair and out of balance."

Jones, the sponsor, said she anticipates changes to the bill following this week's intensive hearings. Republicans control 23 seats in the Senate, where 17 votes are need for a bill to pass.

Matthew Schliesman, a firefighter from Hamilton said he saw the similar bills in Ohio and Wisconsin as attempts to break a promise to public employees.

"State budgets are tight everywhere, obviously. But they've also negotiated these contracts with us and to be able to say, 'I have no money, we need to bail out,' I mean, do the rest of us get those kinds of incentives?" he asked. "I mean, if I can't pay my mortgage because I lose my job, is the bank going to bail me out and let me still keep my house? Every testimony I hear here is we have no money, we need to be able to weasel out of the deals that we already made."

Ted Lyons, an electronics executive and tea party leader from Miami County, saw the day differently.

"Our state funding is going broke and every special interest has a good reason why they need to be given as much money as they have been given," he said. "And we can't afford it anymore."

Ohio's tea party movement is among the nation's strongest — but tea party supporters were fewer by far than union protesters on Thursday.

On the High Street side of the Statehouse — which sits on the heart of downtown Columbus — a passing fire engine answering a call drew loud cheers and screams of support from the union-heavy crowd. As the vehicle passed, city and school buses on the streets honked.

Back in the hearing room, which accommodated a smaller and quieter crowd, Upper Arlington Councilman David DeCapua said economic development directors throughout the state have told him that the inflexibility of Ohio's nearly 30-year-old collective bargaining system is one of the primary reasons the state loses out on new business opportunities.

"Whatever you decide," he advised committee members, "do it because it is in the best interests of all Ohioans. Do not be swayed or intimidated by special interest groups who only care about their own self-interests."

Former Ohio AFL-CIO President Joe Rugola said he was alarmed that union workers are being characterized as "this new privileged class that enjoys a lifestyle and a way of life that other workers, particularly in the private sector, simply can't hope to enjoy."

"I know these people. I've been looking for 33 years. I can't find this privileged class of workers," he said. "I just don't see it."

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