The Ohio Senate on Wednesday voted 17-16 for SB 5, a bill that severely restricts collective bargaining rights for state workers, public higher education workers, local government workers, and public school teachers. Union leaders vowed to continue the fight as the bill next goes to state House of Representatives for consideration.
“We have been shut out, but we will not shut up,” said Eddie L Page, president of the Ohio Civil Servants Employees Association (OCSEA), which represents 35,000 state and local government employees. “We refuse to be silenced. The vote today will just mean our voices will be raised even louder tomorrow.”
On Tuesday, 20,000 public sector union members and their supporters were in Columbus, Ohio’s state capital, to demonstrate against SB 5, whose purpose is to weaken the power of unions and their ability to protect pension and health care benefits that help make workers’ lives more secure.
SB 5 is similar to one being pushed by Republican Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and was initiated by Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich, who has made it clear that taking away these benefits and weakening union power is one of his priorities.
On Wednesday, SB 5 was scheduled for a Senate committee hearing. Thousands of public workers and their supporters returned to Columbus to demonstrate against it. It passed out of committee Wednesday morning and was sent directly to the Senate, which passed the bill by a one-vote margin about 5:00 P.M. After the vote, union members chanted, “Shame on you!” and “We’ll remember this.”
For the last three days Columbus has been a hub of activity as union workers marched, rallied, and spoke directly to lawmakers urging them to vote against SB 5. Even before this week, union members mobilized for a statewide campaign to kill SB 5. “OCSEA members across Ohio called and visited Senators almost daily,” Page said.
As a result of these efforts the original SB 5, which ended collective bargaining rights for state employees, was amended. The amended bill permits collective bargaining for state employees, but severely restricts the scope of their bargaining. They can bargain over wages but increases are to be based only on a so-called merit system; they can bargain over health benefits subject to some limits; and they can bargain over leave, certain aspects of performance evaluation, and the duration of the agreement.
They can’t bargain over transfers, staffing levels, hours of work, equipment, and privatization. Employees also lost the right to strike and to have contract disputes settled by binding arbitration. Instead, any issues that can’t be resolved will go to a legislative body for resolution. These limitations apply to local government workers and public school teachers as well as state employees.
“The changes continue to leave all control at the top and (give)the unions no chance to make any difference at the bargaining table,” Page said. “Now, the bill makes criminals out of public employees, and slaps them with a fine, firing and even jail time if they participate in a strike. It also gives the legislature final decision-making power in any contract disputes and allows the state to declare a fiscal emergency and unilaterally open up union contracts mid-stream.”
The bill substituted for the original SB 5 is 99 pages long, but the committee reviewing the substitute heard no testimony, allowed no questions about the bill to be asked, and basically rubber stamped the substitute.
“This is unconscionable, to have no valid discussion of this bill and then to ignore the voices of hundreds of thousands of Ohioans, who oppose it,” Page said.
Supporters of SB 5 said that the bill had to be passed in order to bring public sector workers pay and benefits in line with the private sector. However, research shows when you compare total compensation (wage and non-wage benefits), “Ohio public employees annually earn 6% less than comparable private sector employees and 3.5% less on an hourly basis than comparable private sector employees.”