Public worker battles spread to Ohio, Indiana
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- First, Wisconsin. Now, Ohio and Indiana.
Battles with public employees' unions spread Tuesday, with Republican-dominated legislatures pressing bills that would weaken collective bargaining and thousands of pro-union demonstrators marching on Capitol buildings in Columbus and Indianapolis.
After a week of upheaval in Madison, Wis., where the thumping din of protesters has turned almost celebratory, the battle moved to Ohio, where the Legislature held hearings on a bill that would effectively end collective bargaining for state workers and drastically reduce it for local government employees, such as police officers and firefighters.
Several thousand pro-union demonstrators filled a main hall of the statehouse in Columbus and gathered in a large crowd outside, chanting "Kill the bill," waving signs and playing drums and bagpipes. There were no official estimates, but numbers appeared to be smaller than those in Madison last week.
In Indiana, nearly all of the Democratic members of the state's House of Representatives stayed away from a legislative session Tuesday, in an effort to stymie a bill they say would weaken collective bargaining. By late Tuesday, they seemed to have succeeded in running down a clock on the bill, which was to expire at midnight. Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma said the bill would die when the deadline passed.
Fleeing was not an option for Ohio Democrats because Republicans had enough members for a quorum. Republicans have a 23-10 Ohio Senate majority, and the bill needs 17 votes to pass. It was not clear when the vote would come.
The bills have amounted to the largest assault on collective bargaining in recent memory, labor experts said, striking at the very heart of a U.S. labor movement that is already deeply atrophied.
"I think we are looking at the future of the labor movement being defined in rotundas in several states," said University of California at Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken, a labor specialist. "This is a structural change with profound repercussions."
The Ohio bill was introduced this month by GOP state Sen. Shannon Jones, who said it was intended to give state and local governments more control over their finances in hard economic times. But foes say the bill is about politics and a direct attack on unions, which have long been reliable Democratic supporters.
"They're using a fiscal challenge as an excuse to consolidate political power," said Democratic former Gov. Ted Strickland, who was in the Columbus protest.
Rob Nichols, spokesman for Ohio's Republican Gov. John Kasich, denied that. "This is nothing more than an effort to reduce the cost of governance, so we can start to create jobs," he said by phone. "This is an effort to save the state, no agendas."
Ohio faces an $8 billion budget deficit, about 15 percent of its two-year budget -- far less than states such as California, Illinois and New Jersey, but still significant -- and Mr. Kasich says drastic steps are needed to plug the gap.
Unionized workers represented just 6.9 percent of all workers in the private sector in 2010, down from about 36 percent in 1955, said Harvard economist Richard Freeman. He said the number of unionized workers in the public sector has held steady at about 35 percent since the late '70s.
"Seven percent in the United States makes them a very rare breed," he said. "I don't think there's a high probability that this will be an explosive event where the average American says, 'Wait, this is what's left of the middle class; what are you doing?' "
In Wisconsin, Senate Democrats remained in hiding across the state line, depriving the chamber of the quorum needed to take up the budget repair bill, which includes provisions they view as an attack on public-sector unions. Meanwhile, Gov. Scott Walker, who introduced the legislation, warned that if the bill were not passed, layoff notices could be sent to state workers as early as next week.
Seeking to increase pressure on Mr. Walker to compromise, the South Central Wisconsin Federation of Labor announced Tuesday that it had endorsed a rare labor action: a general strike to begin if he signed the bill to curb collective-bargaining rights.
The federation, which represents 45,000 Madison-area unionized workers, said it was not a formal call for a general strike, but the first step to prepare for an eventual strike.
Labor officials said more senior union leaders would have to make the official decision to call a general strike, which would involve public- and private-sector workers.
The Ohio bill, if passed, would do away with legal protections passed in 1983 governing collective bargaining for state workers, including bars to hiring alternate workers during a strike.
Bargaining power would be weakened for local workers, ending binding arbitration -- an option favored by police officers and firefighters, who are not allowed to strike.
It would also slice into public-worker benefits by taking health insurance off the bargaining table and requiring government workers to pay at least 20 percent of the cost. It would strip automatic pay increases and mandatory sick days for teachers.
The bill could have political repercussions for Ohio Republicans, who draw some votes from among union members. Jeremy Mendenhall, president of the Ohio Troopers Association, who is an active-duty sergeant and a registered Republican, said he was angry with his party for pushing it. "People won't forget this in 2012," he said.
But Republicans could also gain, said Xavier University political science professor Gene Beaupre in Cincinnati. Taking a cost-cutting position against unions is part of the mantra for groups like the Tea Party, and not necessarily unpopular. "There is a strong sentiment against pension benefits and all that has accrued over the years as a result of organized public labor," he said.
For the working class in Ohio, government jobs are highly desirable, with the median salary about 20 percent more than in the private sector, in part because employees tend to be more skilled. More than half of state and local workers have college degrees, far more than in the private sector. Among college-educated workers, public-sector employees earn about 5 percent less than private-sector counterparts.
Monty Blanton, 50, who worked for 31 years as a food service worker and electrician in a facility for mentally retarded people, made a gross salary of $44,000 before retirement. His pension, he said, stands at $19,500, barely enough to live on. "We're barely making a living wage," he said. "I don't think they understand how hard it is in southeastern Ohio."
First Published February 23, 2011 12:00 am