Republican state senators said Wednesday they will support allowing unionized state employees to collectively bargain for their wages, a reversal of a bill provision that had drawn thousands of protesters to the Statehouse as part of a wave of demonstrations against similar legislation in Wisconsin and other states.
The potential olive branch of negotiated wages comes in a bill that still would not allow unions to bargain for benefits, sick time, vacation or other conditions, Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus said. And the bill would permit no strikes for any public employee from the local level to the state, he said; such limitations exist in more than 30 states.
Niehaus told reporters that lawmakers are pursuing the changes after listening to 20 hours of testimony on the bill, not because of the protests.
"We're looking at being fair with all state employees. We respect the work that the safety services provide. Again, you all know, this is a process. We debate, we listen to all interested parties, and that is what we have done."
Though the bills in Wisconsin and Ohio both would allow negotiations over wages but not benefits, there are several differences between the two. In Ohio, the legislation is supported by Gov. John Kasich but not written by him, whereas Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been the face of his proposal. And Ohio's bill is still before a Senate committee, while Wisconsin's was being debated Wednesday on the Assembly floor. Democrats in Wisconsin had to flee the state to block the legislation; the GOP in Ohio, though it controls a strong majority in the Senate, was grappling with opposition to the bill among some of its own more union-friendly members.
State Sen. Tim Grendell, a Republican from union-heavy northeast Ohio, sent a memo to Niehaus and others Wednesday expressing a host of concerns about the voluminous bill — including the fact it presented no replacement option to collective bargaining.
"Civil service is not a functional alternative and will cost both the employee and the taxpayers substantial legal expenses," wrote Grendell, an attorney.
Niehaus, a Cincinnati-area Republican, said he doesn't view the revisions as a compromise of the bill's intent of reining in government spending by allowing governments more flexibility in dealing with their unions.
Senate Democratic Leader Capri Cafaro called the changes "window dressing." She said the bill needs to be scrapped.
"We can't grow Ohio's economy by destroying jobs and attacking the middle class," she said. "... Public employees in Ohio didn't cause our budget problems and they shouldn't be blamed for something that's not their fault."
The state's personnel agency suggested that keeping some sort of collective bargaining would be more cost-efficient than eliminating it entirely, said Sen. Kevin Bacon, the chairman of the panel handling the bill.
He said senators are still determining what mechanism they would employ to resolve differences in place of strikes.
The initial bill called for a ban on collective bargaining by the 40,000-plus unionized state workers and union limits for local government employees, public safety forces, school districts, and public colleges and universities. Over days of hearings, it has drawn thousands of protesters to the Statehouse and prompted a visit by the Rev. Jesse Jackson; former Gov. Ted Strickland pledged to lead a ballot repeal if the bill passes. On Tuesday, a few thousand protesters were locked out of the Statehouse, state public safety officials said.
No vote is scheduled on the proposal. Niehaus said amendments are due at noon Friday and a vote could come as soon as next week.
Niehaus said it's too soon to say whether safety forces would be exempted from provisions of the bill, as they were in Wisconsin. Protect the Protectors, a coalition of police and fire unions, formed this week to protest the pace and content of the bill.
Democrats brought the father of Ohio's 27-year-old collective bargaining law, former state Sen. Gene Branstool, to the Statehouse on Wednesday to share his historical perspective on the issue. He was also among those unable to get into the Statehouse on Tuesday.
He said the law stemmed from labor unrest and strikes in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"An individual worker who does his 40 hours or whatever, it's hard for him to represent himself alone, and this is a way that he can do that — and sometimes they need leaders," Branstool said. "Other elements of our society, whether it's the pharmaceutical companies, the banks, the insurance companies, payday lenders, all these guys have people looking after their interests. And this is a way that working people have a chance to look after theirs."
Associated Press writer Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed to this report.
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