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Not So Fast: Ohio’s Anti-Union SB 5 Has Several Hurdles to Clear

When we last left Ohio, the state Senate had passed a bill, SB 5, that would severely restrict collective bargaining for all public employees, including police and fire. It would all impose criminal penalties for strike actions, and allow local officials to determine arbitration disputes rather than an independent third party.

At the time, there was credible speculation that the Ohio House, which has a 59-40 split for Republicans, would quickly take up and pass the same bill, moving it on to Governor John Kasich for signing. But a funny thing happened on the way to Columbus. The House Speaker, William Batchelder, announced hearings. The first occurs today, coinciding with Kasich’s State of the State Address. Labor groups have scheduled a rally at the state Capitol for later today. Thousands are expected to attend, though it may not be as large as the estimated 20,000 who protested SB 5 last week.

The belief was that the Ohio House was far to the right of the Senate, which struggled to pass SB 5 and only accomplished it by one vote, 17-16, after kicking Republicans off of two key committees to get the bill through. But Batchelder wants three weeks of hearings, with three of them scheduled for this week. This has many observers thinking that the House either wants to change the bill or let things cool down before passage.

“If they wanted to pass it unchanged, it wouldn’t take three weeks,” said Tim Burga, the President of the Ohio AFL-CIO. “But the more they drag it out, the more Ohioans learn about the bill and find out they don’t like it.”

This extended process has a number of implications. First of all, any changes to the bill would mean that the Senate would have to vote on SB 5 again. At that point, they could take up the House version or go to a conference committee to resolve differences. Burga and other observers think it’s likely that the Senate would just take up the House version.

But that would be an extremely difficult climb in the State Senate. The debate on the bill was agonizing, and in the end it succeeded by only one vote. One of the Republican Senators who voted yes, Sen. Karen Gillmor, told constituents at a town hall that SB 5 was “a bad bill that hurts people,” that it’s likely to be overturned by statewide referendum, and that she would sign a petition for that referendum. In addition, Gillmor tried to claim that Senate Majority Leader Tom Niehaus was the bill’s deciding vote, when in a 17-16 split, everyone who voted for the bill was the deciding vote. This doesn’t sound like someone who would particularly relish voting for SB 5 again. And that’s true of several Republicans in the state Senate. “I’m sure some Senate Republicans didn’t want to vote for this before, and they’re not interested in going through the meat grinder again,” Burga said.

Complicating this further is the rightward tilt of the Ohio House. If there are changes made to SB 5, it’s likely they would move the bill even further to the right. A Tea Party group, the Ohio Liberty Council, sought a number of changes to the bill in the Senate, and are pushing for the same types of changes in the House. This includes essentially a “right-to-work” rider for public employees, so they can choose to not be in the union, as well as the ability for public workers to decline to pay union dues. “I suspect the House is interested in making some changes,” said Burga. “And they’ll probably make it tougher. We’re anticipating more anti-worker legislation, this bunch made it clear that they want to wage war on working families.”

If the legislature does pass the bill, it is very likely that it would go to a statewide referendum, what the AFL-CIO’s Burga described as a “citizen veto.” Supporters would need to gather around 230,000 signatures for that to trigger. “We’re no strangers to ballot initiatives and I like our chances on that ballot,” said Burga.

But this unexpected delay has implications for when that ballot measure would take place. If the bill is signed into law before April 6, it would go on the November 2011 ballot, alongside several municipal elections. If it drags out past April 6, the vote would happen on the November 2012 ballot, coinciding with the Presidential election in the swingiest of swing states. The law would not take effect until after the referendum.

There are pluses and minuses to both dates. In 2011, a host of local officials who deal with public employees on a regular basis would be on the ballot, and would have to take a position on SB 5. It could end up a galvanizing event to shift city elections. In 2012, the citizen veto of SB 5 could bring union members to the polls in large numbers, which could provide support to Democrats. The larger turnout may help actually pass the veto and nullify the bill. “We have little control over the timing,” Burga said. “Either way we have to be prepared.”

So, to recap, it’s not clear when the Ohio House will pass the bill, it’s not clear what changes they want to make (though they will probably go even further), it’s really not clear that the Senate wants any part of this again, and it’s not clear when the dust settles when a referendum would be held. The only thing that is clear is that labor has been totally energized by this battle in Ohio, much like the similar battle in Wisconsin.

“We’re more solidified, more energized than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” said Burga of the Ohio AFL-CIO. “There’s an opportunity here for us to educate the general public on the benefits of labor and rights in the workplace. We’re going to move forward and SB 5 won’t be the end of it. We have to sustain this movement. We have to educate, mobilize and organize.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen