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Ohio Teachers Fight Ban on Pay Deductions for Politics

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Ohio teachers celebrated a cautious victory last month when a federal judge granted a last-minute reprieve from a union-opposed provision in a new state campaign-finance law.

The Ohio Education Association fears that the provision, which bars public employees from making political contributions through payroll deductions, would unfairly inhibit its ability to raise money. The payroll system is widely used by teachers' unions for their political-action committees.

On Aug. 22, the day before the new law took effect, a federal court in Toledo issued a preliminary injunction against the payroll-deduction provision in it, halting implementation of that part of the law.

Michael Billirakis, the president of the state association, said the decision affirmed the right of teachers to be treated the same as employees of private companies.

"When you have an open-door policy for private employees and for corporations to make contributions [through payroll contributions], I think it's only proper that public employees have the same rights," he said. For now, he added, teachers will continue to have union contributions deducted from their paychecks.

But Bob Clegg, the director of operations for the Ohio Republican Caucus and a drafter of the bill, said the law aimed to protect public employees, not target unions.

"We've had instances of political shakedowns of public employees by their employers," he said, referring to the April indictment of the former Ohio state auditor on charges of illegally soliciting political donations from state workers. In order to stop the practice, legislators felt that an across-the-board ban on public employees' political payroll deductions was needed, Mr. Clegg said.

Mark R. Weaver, a spokesman for the state attorney general, said his office would likely appeal the injunction.

The next step for the lawsuit, filed by the Ohio afl-cio, will be a hearing on the issues by the federal court. A similar lawsuit in Franklin County, Ohio, Common Pleas Court, filed by the United Auto Workers and the OEA, has yet to be decided.

Political Climate

The new law came about in a political climate seen to be particularly unhealthy for unions.

Last November's elections gave Republicans control of the Ohio House, in addition to the governor's office and the Senate, for the first time in decades. In similar political transitions across the country, newly powerful Republicans are targeting groups like teachers' unions that have long used their hefty political war chests to keep the GOP at bay. Arrangements such as fair-share agreements, collective-bargaining rights, and teacher tenure are at risk. (See Education Week, May 17, 1995.)

The Ohio law is one of several recent political setbacks for the state's teachers. In July, the Senate approved a union-opposed bill to ban the practice of so-called partial strikes, under which teachers walk out on alternating mornings and afternoons and thus can collect part of their pay.

Teachers also suffered a blow this year when Gov. George V. Voinovich vetoed a provision in the state budget that would have replaced the standard for firing teachers.

The OEA supported the provision, but the governor argued that it would have made it more difficult to fire bad teachers.

Although the union professed support for most provisions in the campaign-finance law, it said the ban on payroll deductions would have unfairly singled out public employees such as teachers.

"All it is, is an attempt to limit our ability to collect money," said Mr. Billirakis, whose group has 737 affiliates. Such a provision "diminishes our ability to be effective players in the political arena," he said.

"This is the easiest way that our people, who are relatively small givers, can have a relatively small amount of money taken out of each paycheck," added John Grossman, the president of the Columbus Education Association.

Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the director of government relations for the National Education Association, said the Ohio law stood out among other laws nationwide as an attack on the political rights of public employees.

Ms. Teasley said the bill could set a precedent for laws in other states to target public-sector unions in the guise of campaign-finance reform.

Other Provisions Challenged

The new law made a host of changes to the state's campaign-finance rules, notably a $2,500 cap on the amount a political-action committee can give a candidate.

In addition to the payroll-deduction provision, several portions of the law affecting unions were also challenged in the federal lawsuit.

The court granted a preliminary injunction, the same ruling as the one given for the payroll-deduction provision, against three other parts of the law.

Those provisions would: limit to four the times a union could solicit its members for political contributions in a year, require that a union's communications about contributions be in writing, and prevent the PAC from soliciting nonmembers.

However, the federal court allowed implementation of four other elements of the new law that had been challenged.

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