Ohio House panel OKs public worker union bill

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A panel of Ohio lawmakers made a bill to limit collective bargaining rights for 350,000 public workers even tougher for unions on Tuesday, as the state moved closer to Wisconsin-style restrictions.

A Republican-controlled House labor committee voted 9-6 along party lines to send the bill to the full House. Its approval of the legislation was met with chants of “Shame on you!” from the several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the hearing room.

“I don’t hear your supporters out there!” one man inside the room shouted to lawmakers.

A vote on the bill in the GOP-controlled House could come Wednesday. The Senate, also led by Republicans, passed the bill earlier this month on a 17-16 vote and would have to agree to the changes before Gov. John Kasich could sign it into law. The new Republican governor also supports the bill.

Similar limits to collective bargaining have cropped up in statehouses across the country, most notably in Wisconsin, where the governor earlier this month signed into law a measure eliminating most of state workers’ collective bargaining rights. That state’s measure exempts police officers and firefighters; Ohio’s does not.

The Ohio bill would apply to public workers across the state, such as police officers, firefighters, teachers and state employees. They could negotiate wages and certain work conditions but not health care, sick time or pension benefits. The bill would do away with automatic pay raises and would base future wage increases on merit. Workers would be banned from striking.

The committee made more than a dozen substantive changes to the legislation, though it kept much of the bill intact.

Kasich’s $55.5 billion, two-year spending plan for the state counts on savings from relaxed union rights at the state and local levels. Local governments and school districts face deep cuts in the wake of the state’s $8 billion budget gap.

Those decreases in funding aren’t lost on lawmakers, said state Rep. Joseph Uecker, chairman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee.

“We have to give them something in order to help control their costs,” said Uecker, R-Loveland. “I think this bill goes a long way in helping them control the costs.”

The revisions make it more difficult for unions to collect certain fees. But the committee also removed jail time as a possible penalty for workers who participate in walkouts and made clear that public workers could negotiate over safety equipment.

Democrats contend illegal strikers could still face imprisonment under laws already on the books, despite changes to the bill.

Despite the adjustments, Ohio Fraternal Order of Police President Jay McDonald said the bill was still “fundamentally flawed.”

“The minor changes made to Senate Bill 5 are offset by additions that make the bill even more unfair for Ohio law enforcement and firefighters,” he said.

The committee also altered the bill to ban automatic deductions from employee paychecks that would go the unions’ political arm. Other changes would prevent nonunion employees affected by contracts from paying fees to union organizations.

Unions argue that their contracts cover those nonunion workers and that letting them not pay unfairly spreads the costs to dues-paying members.

“This is even more radical and unfair than the Senate version of the bill,” said Eddie L. Parks, president of the 34,000-member Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. “Not only are they attacking middle-class wages, rights and benefits, but now the bill will punish people for even joining a union. Those who join will be picking up the tab for those who don’t.”

Democrats have offered no amendments. Instead, they delivered boxes containing more than 65,000 opponent signatures to the committee’s chairman.

“These people have expressed their concern and their frustration with what the bill is going to do to their future,” said state Rep. Kenny Yuko, a Democrat from Richmond Heights.

Opponents have vowed a ballot repeal if the Ohio measure passes. State deadlines would require that Kasich sign the bill by April 6 for a referendum to be on the ballot this fall.

The legislation was met with demonstrations and packed hearing rooms in the weeks before the Senate passed the measure. On Tuesday, an estimated 450 protesters listened to the committee’s amendments over the loudspeakers positioned around the Statehouse before they headed outside, shouting, “Kill the bill!”

Lawmakers also revised the bill to include more details on who defines merit and performance pay. For instance, performance pay for teachers would be based upon a statewide framework from the state Department of Education.

Jennifer Blair, a 33-year-old music teacher from Westerville, said she is protesting a bill she believes will “destroy public education as we know it.”

“It’s setting out to take away services our children have, take away services our teachers have, supplies in our classroom, teachers’ rights, class size, safety issues in the classroom for our special needs teachers,” she said. “And it focuses on performance-based pay. As a music teacher, I can’t be judged that way. I don’t give a test to my students. I have no way to be based on performance-based pay in my classroom.”

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