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Ohio Wages Fierce Fight on Collective Bargaining

“Hi, Teresa,” said Phil Hayes, a high school social studies teacher. “I’m voting no on Senate Bill 5 because it can make my class size larger and can make it harder for me to be a teacher.”

That was how Mr. Hayes plunged into yet another call as he and a dozen other union members at a labor phone bank made hundreds of calls to urge Ohioans to repeal one of Gov. John R. Kasich’s signal achievements: the enactment of Senate Bill 5, a law that weakens public employees’ bargaining rights.

The push to repeal the law, enacted by the Republican-led legislature in March, will be one of the biggest battles in the country this Election Day, with the law’s supporters and opponents expected to spend in total more than $20 million in the fight.

Supporters say the law is vital to curb labor’s power and to hold down state and local compensation costs during an era of increasing budget deficits. But opponents — who collected 1.3 million signatures to place the repeal vote on the Nov. 8 ballot — say the law unfairly scapegoats public employees, and weakens unions, a powerful ally of the Democrats.

“As someone who set out to serve his students, I don’t work on Wall Street; I serve Main Street,” Mr. Hayes said. “I didn’t cause the economic and financial problems caused by Wall Street, but now public employees like me have to suffer the consequences. We don’t sell collateral debt obligations, but we do sell cookies to help keep our schools going.”

In dozens of towns across Ohio, rival sides have set up phone banks and door-knocking efforts. Unions and their allies have created We Are Ohio, a group that is leading the repeal effort, which has 10,000 volunteers and hopes a victory will discourage Republicans in other states from adopting anti-union legislation. Mr. Kasich’s allies have created Building a Better Ohio, financed by business and conservative donors, to block repeal.

In many ways Senate Bill 5 goes further than the antibargaining law that Wisconsin’s Republican-led Legislature enacted in March over the protests of tens of thousands of union supporters. Ohio’s law allows only limited bargaining: If management and union do not reach a settlement, then city councils and school boards can impose their side’s final contract offer unilaterally. The Ohio law bans binding arbitration and bargaining on health coverage, pensions or staffing levels. It also requires government workers to pay at least 15 percent of their health insurance costs and pay 10 percent of their salaries toward their pensions.

The Ohio Senate president, Thomas E. Niehaus, who is campaigning against repeal, said, “These are reasonable reforms asking our public sector employees to do what private sector employees have been doing for decades: paying more for their health care and their pension benefits.” He denied that the bill eviscerated collective bargaining. “We are reforming collective bargaining,” he said.

But one prominent Republican opponent of Senate Bill 5, State Senator Bill Seitz, said the bill all but erased collective bargaining by letting management decide which side’s final offer would prevail. He said it was like “going to divorce court and finding out your wife’s father is the judge.”

A Quinnipiac poll in late September found that Ohioans favor repeal by a 13 percentage point margin, 51 percent to 38 percent, down from a 24 percentage point margin in July. Opponents of repeal say they have significantly narrowed the gap since they began broadcasting advertisements after Labor Day.

As one of their most powerful arguments, opponents of Senate Bill 5 say the law will jeopardize public safety by no longer letting firefighters and police bargain over staffing levels.

A union-backed television commercial shows 3-year-old Zoey Quinn slumped on a Cincinnati firefighter’s arm as he rescued her from her family’s burning house. The advertisement warns that firefighters might not be able to save Zoey next time, because the law bars bargaining over minimum staffing levels.

Zoey’s great-grandmother, Marlene Quinn, says in the advertisement, “I don’t want the politicians in Columbus making decisions for the firefighters, police, teachers, nurses or any organization that’s helping people. Fewer firefighters can mean the difference between life or death.”

Ms. Quinn is now at the center of a controversy because the side fighting the repeal has run a broadcast advertisement using her words, without her permission, and then goes on to say that without Senate Bill 5 there will be more layoffs of firemen. Repeal supporters say that is twisting her sentiments.

Jeff Berding, a former member of the Cincinnati City Council and one of the most outspoken Democratic supporters of Senate Bill 5, said the union-backed ads were misleading, arguing that government officials would never ignore safety concerns. “You’re not going to have elected officials do things that are terribly unfair to firefighters and police and jeopardizing public safety,” he said. “Officials want the firefighters and police endorsing them in the next election.”

He said he backed Senate Bill 5 because “I want some options besides raising taxes and laying off police and firefighters.” He said government officials often had little recourse but to increase taxes or dismiss public employees, thereby cutting public services, because unions, usually dominated by more senior workers, often refuse to make concessions. Union leaders recognize that concessions would hurt the more senior workers, while in a financial shortfall resulting from unions’ not granting concessions, those laid off would be the more junior workers. Senate Bill 5 allows government to lay off workers outside of seniority.

Tim Burga, the president of the Ohio State A.F.L.-C.I.O., said Senate Bill 5 was an assault on the state’s 360,000 public employees and was based on numerous misunderstandings. He said that many government employees already contributed heavily toward their health and pension costs, and that many had accepted wage freezes to help cut budget deficits.

“This shows that collective bargaining works,” Mr. Burga said. “I’ve never seen an issue catch fire like this. You look at the 1.3 million signatures we collected and the outpouring of opposition because this was such a blatant politically motivated attack. The energy is there on our side.”

Mack D. Mariani, a professor of political science at Xavier University in Cincinnati, said an unrelated issue on the Ohio ballot would hurt the repeal effort. The Tea Party is backing a proposed state constitutional amendment that would let Ohioans opt out of the mandatory requirements of the health law that Congressional Democrats enacted last year. That should lead to higher-than-normal conservative turnout, undercutting labor’s repeal effort.

“Right now, the unions are definitely winning the ground game in terms of getting people on the streets, knocking on doors,” Mr. Mariani said. “If the unions win, it will certainly be seen as a big blow for Kasich.”

Many union leaders and Democrats say that if they win the repeal vote, that should give President Obama momentum in Ohio in the 2012 elections, a pivotal swing state. But if Mr. Kasich’s allies prevail, then Ohio Republicans will have a lot to crow about going into 2012.

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