Ohio's union bill is tougher than Wisconsin's, so where is the outrage?

Ohio is set to pass a bill that is tougher on unions than the one being considered in Wisconsin. But in Ohio, the only real theatrics took place behind the closed doors of the Senate.

By , Staff writer

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    Protesters against a bill to limit the power of unions gather in the Ohio Statehouse atrium after the Senate passed the bill Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio. Senate Bill 5 will strip public employees of collective bargaining rights.
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In passing a bill this week to limit collective-bargaining rights by public-union members, the Ohio Senate accomplished in just days what Wisconsin lawmakers are still debating during a standoff that is in its third week and counting.

By many measures, Ohio should have had a more difficult time passing the bill because more is at stake: It has the sixth-largest number of public-sector union members in the nation and twice the number of Wisconsin. Additionally, the bill, which still awaits passage in the House, affects all public-sector union employees in the state, opposed to the proposed bill in Wisconsin, which exempts unions representing police, firefighters, and state troopers.

Indeed, if passed, Ohio will become the biggest state to impose sweeping reforms on public-sector unions. Besides Wisconsin, similar measures are moving through legislatures in Indiana, Tennessee, Idaho, and Kansas.

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The differences between Ohio and Wisconsin were largely procedural, with Senate Republicans capable of passing the bill even if all Democrats fled to Siberia. But not everything was smooth sailing, with Republican leaders in the Senate removing members from key committees to get the bill through – a move one scholar calls "unprecedented."

Though passage through the Republican-majority House and endorsement by the governor seem assured, the hiccups in the Senate suggest that Republican lawmakers might not always be unanimous in their support for such tough measures against unions.

Ohio vs. Wisconsin

The Ohio bill is similar to the one pending in Wisconsin in that it eliminates collective-bargaining rights except for wages, and it forces workers to pay more of their health and pension costs. However, the bill goes further in making it illegal for workers to strike.

Among other measures, the bill also broadens the factors that can determine layoffs or dismissals and limits the number of vacation days and paid holidays for long-time workers. Teacher contracts can no longer set ratios, such as the number of students per teacher, and pay is based on merit, not necessarily length of service.
Gov. John Kasich (R) says the bill is needed to help trim the state’s forecasted $8 billion budget shortfall.

In Columbus, the state capital, there are protests, just as there are in downtown Madison, Wis., where 14 Senate Democrats fled three weeks ago to prevent the state’s Republican leadership from having a quorum. As in Ohio, Democrats in Wisconsin say the bill there erodes the power of unions, but supporters say it is needed to to plug a $3.6 billion forecasted budget gap over the next two years.

The situation is forcing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) to engage in political theater to lure the renegade Democrats back to the state. Governor Walker has threatened to lay off thousands of state workers starting April 1. Senate Republicans voted Wednesday to fine their Democrat peers $100 per day for each day in session they miss.

Governor Kasich is spared such difficulties because Ohio state law requires a simple majority to pass a deciding vote, which means that even if Ohio’s Senate Democrats flee in protest, the Senate’s Republican majority could still vote.

“In Ohio, there was no way for Democrats to block the bill. It was just a matter of Republicans sticking together,” says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “I suspect had the situation been similar [to Wisconsin], there may have been mobilization. But it’s hard to mobilize around something you know you are going to lose.”

Ohio Republicans' mini-revolt

Also unlike Wisconsin, the Ohio bill was not a strict partisan issue. The Ohio Senate passed the bill with a 17-to-16 vote, with six Republicans objecting.

The divide among Republican lawmakers was also evident when the bill sat before the 12-member Senate Insurance, Commerce, and Labor Committee. When Ohio Sen. Bill Seitz (R) opposed the bill and looked to deny the Republicans of a majority, he was replaced by Sen. Cliff Hite, who gave the supporting vote.

Republican leaders also removed state Sen. Scott Oelslager (R), who voiced objections to the bill, from the Senate Rules Committee to avoid a split vote and to move the bill forward.

The sudden removal of committee members was “unprecedented,” says Paul Beck, a political scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus.

The split among Ohio Senate Republicans corresponds to the urban-rural divide of their constituencies, Mr. Beck adds.

The Republicans who defected were those who tended to live in more urban areas that have more union members in them," he says. "Rural and small town Republicans, where no union voters are in their constituencies, weren’t cross-pressured for this" vote.

There remains the possibility the Ohio bill, if passed by the House, could be repealed by voters. To make that happen, the Ohio Secretary of State’s office would need to receive petitions with 231,147 signatures of registered voters by July 6. The number of needed signatures represents 6 percent of the total vote cast in Ohio in the November midterm election.

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