Friday, February 18, 2011

Demonstrators protest Ohio labor law changes

Toledo Blade
Jim Provance

COLUMBUS — Organized labor Thursday told legislators that outlawing collective bargaining for public employees would not end strikes but could return Ohio to the days when walkouts occurred frequently, illegally, and sometimes violently.

A crush of about 3,800 protesters inside the Statehouse and many others outside punctuated their point with heated debate about the proposed reforms.

D. Michael Collins, who has been on both sides of the bargaining table as a current Toledo city councilman and former negotiator for city police, asked members of the Senate Insurance, Commerce, and Labor Committee to imagine Toledo in the midst of its devastating public employee strike of 1979.

“I would sincerely hope that, when you do your due diligence, close your eyes and imagine your city,” he said. “Imagine your city from every single compass point a burning inferno … Ask [Toledo Sen. Edna Brown] what it was like to sit in her house that evening wondering when the next firebomb would be coming. …We broke down.”

A Senate committee continued debate into the night on a bill to enact the most sweeping changes in state labor law in nearly three decades. Among numerous provisions, the bill would outlaw collective bargaining by state employees, including those at public universities and colleges.
 The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Shannon Jones (R., Springboro), who has been greeted with jeers from the labor crowd during recent hearings, was escorted about the Statehouse Thursday by a member of the highway patrol, who is a union member.

The majority of those in the crowd were there to oppose the bill, their shouts from elsewhere in the Statehouse clearly audible in the Senate committee room.

But for the first time, an organized effort to support the bill led by Tea Party members also weighed in with a rally outside the Statehouse.

“We’re here today because of common sense,’’ said Mike Wilson, president of the Cincinnati Tea Party. “Somehow over the last few years, things got out of line. … Unfortunately, we’ve got to make some hard choices. … All we’re asking is for the public sector to accept a little bit of the pain.’’

While not outlawing collective bargaining at the local government and school levels, Senate Bill 5 would impose new restrictions that the bill’s backers say would tilt the balance of power back toward management.

It would end final binding arbitration as a means to resolve disputes involving police and firefighters, who are already prohibited from striking. It would prohibit the use of seniority as the sole factor in determining who is laid off, allow the hiring of permanent replacement workers by the government during strikes, and take health care off the negotiating table.

Representatives of police and firefighter unions agreed it may be time to revisit Ohio’s collective-bargaining law, which has been largely unchanged since it was passed in 1983.  They expressed a willingness to work on increasing transparency, letting the public know more about the competing offers on the table during impasses.

But they said elimination of collective-bargaining rights should be off the table. They also argued that ending binding arbitration, in which an independent third party settles disputes between local governments and public safety employees, would renege on the deal made in 1983. That’s when public safety workers got binding arbitration in exchange for not seeking the right to strike that some other public employees received.

Some supporters of the bill, however, argued that it doesn’t go far enough.

“The people not in this room and who will never be in this room pay for all of this, and they would like their voices to be heard,” Ray Warrick, a Tea Party member from Mason, told the committee. “Please know that, even if you can’t see and hear them in the state Capitol halls. They are out there every day doing their jobs. Please do yours.”

Before the hearing began, Sandusky firefighter Adam Butler said the proposed changes, particularly the mandate that public employees pay at least 20 percent of their health-care premiums, would undermine innovative efforts that the city and firefighters have taken through contracts to avoid layoffs and keep fire stations open.

“We have a wellness program where we get deductible decreases based on how healthy we are,” said Mr. Butler. “It’s been a successful program so far. We work all year around to figure out cost-fighting measures because it’s in everybody’s interest.”

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