Law & Courts

New Ohio, Wis., Labor Laws Besieged

By Sean Cavanagh — April 07, 2011 6 min read
Protesters against Ohio's new state law that curtails the collective bargaining rights of more than 350,000 public workers gather at the Ohio Statehouse for a rally launching the We Are Ohio campaign, in Columbus on April 9. The campaign is signing up volunteers to circulate petitions in pursuit of a referendum to repeal the measure.

Elected officials in Ohio and Wisconsin were successful in muscling into law new measures to restrict collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public workers, but those controversial plans now face serious legal and political challenges.

In Ohio, teachers’ unions have joined other labor organizations and political advocates in an effort to collect enough signatures to force a referendum aimed at overturning the state’s new bargaining law.

And in Wisconsin, the state’s collective bargaining law is being challenged in court on the grounds that state legislators violated open-meetings laws by approving it through an unusual procedural maneuver. That case is pending in a state circuit court.

Both measures were approved with strong backing from newly elected Republican governors—John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin—and from GOP-controlled legislatures, but they ignited furious public protests from teachers and other state employees. Those debates have taken on deep significance across the country, with partisans and advocates on all sides describing them as symbolic battles over the proper role and influence of teachers’ unions and other labor organizations.

Similarly hard-fought debates over collective bargaining have emerged in numerous states, as have attempts to limit teachers’ job protections and to tie their pay to student achievement. Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, a Republican, last month signed into law a bill that limits the length of teacher contracts, forbids bargaining on issues other than wages and benefits, and phases out teacher tenure. Republican-dominated legislatures in Indiana and Tennessee are also considering their own proposals to curb bargaining rights.

Ohio Battle

Ohio’s law forbids teachers from bargaining on class sizes, school assignments and various other working conditions. It also prevents districts imposing layoffs from giving preferences to teachers with more seniority, and requires that teachers be paid on the basis of performance, rather than a traditional set salary schedule. In addition, the law mandates that public employees pay 15 percent of their health-care costs, and sets new, minimum requirements for workers’ pension contributions.

Even before Gov. Kasich signed the measure into law on March 31, opponents were vowing that they would seek to repeal it.

The state’s two largest teachers’ unions, the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teachers, which have 128,000 and 20,000 members, respectively, are taking part in efforts to try to have an item placed on the Nov. 8 ballot to overturn the measure.

By state law, advocates need to collect signatures from 6 percent of the total votes cast in the 2010 Ohio governor’s race—which works out to 231,147—and have them submitted to the Ohio secretary of state by June 30. The law could be overturned by a simple majority vote. If the item is placed on the ballot, the law would be put on hold until the outcome of the vote was determined.

Representatives of the teachers’ unions say they expect to receive support from both their members and broad swaths of the public who are worried about the impact of the measure.

“It’s not going to take any convincing” to find volunteers for the effort, said Sue Taylor, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “People are reaching out to us saying, ‘When will we get petitions? When can we get started?’ ”

Rachelle Johnson, the assistant executive director for the member-services program at the Ohio Education Association, said the organization’s message to the public will be that the law represents “an attack on the middle class” and is a misguided school policy that will likely lead to much larger class sizes.

“The impact will be personalized,” Ms. Johnson said. “We think we have lots of community support.”

State Sen. President Pro Tempore Keith Faber, a Republican who supported the law, said it was likely that backers of the referendum campaign would gather enough signatures to get it on the ballot. But he also predicted that support for the law will grow, as the public recognizes the new powers it gives school districts and boards to negotiate improved contracts that save taxpayers money.

Districts will reduce pension and health-care costs and save money by tying salaries to performance, said Mr. Faber, who added that he does not believe the measure will lead to significantly larger class sizes.

“This law is not about taking away people’s rights—it’s about leveling the playing field,” the senator said. While the lawmaker said he is committed to protecting workers’ rights, “there’s a point when taxpayers’ concerns need to be taken into consideration.”

He also pointed to an analysis released recently by the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, a part of Gov. Kasich’s administration, which estimated that the state and local governments would reap an estimated $1.3 billion per year in savings by cutting costs on health care and moving away from automatic salary increases. A separate administration analysis projected an additional $230 million in annual savings to districts from the law’s changes to pensions.

Bargaining Ballot

In Wisconsin, Gov. Walker’s effort to overhaul the state’s bargaining laws has been the subject of unceasing controversy since he unveiled his proposal in February, and the furor has continued since he signed it into law March 11.

His plan, which had strong backing from the GOP-controlled legislature, drew massive protests from teachers and other public workers at the state Capitol in Madison, and around the state. The law blocks teachers from bargaining on issues other than wages, restricts the size of salary increases, limits contracts to one year, and sets minimum pension and health-care contributions.

Democrats in the state Senate fled the state on Feb. 17, preventing Republicans from securing the quorum necessary to vote on legislation that affects state spending. But Republicans eventually cleared that barrier by stripping the financial measures from the bill and having a special committee approve a revised measure. It was later approved by Republican majorities in both legislative chambers, and Gov. Walker signed it shortly after.

But on March 16, Ismael R. Ozanne, the district attorney of Dane County, where Madison is located, challenged the measure in circuit court, arguing that Republican lawmakers had violated the state’s open meeting laws. Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi has ruled that the law cannot be implemented until she decides on the matter, which is pending.

Meanwhile, the shadow of the new law looms over Wisconsin’s political scene. On April 5, voters went to the polls to decide a Wisconsin state Supreme Court election between challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg and incumbent Justice David T. Prosser Jr. The race was officially nonpartisan, but drew the attention of advocates from across the country, who saw it as a referendum on Gov. Walker’s leadership, and the bargaining law. Mr. Prosser drew support from conservatives, while his opponent was backed by liberals. As of last week, Mr. Prosser held a narrow lead in the race, though state elections officials are still reviewing vote totals.

In addition, both Democratic and Republican activists have vowed to pursue recall elections against state lawmakers who took positions that angered one side or the other during the collective bargaining debate.

Michael E. Kraft, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, was skeptical of the idea that many elected officials face a serious recall threat, given the difficulty of gathering enough signatures to get races on the ballot and finding candidates capable of beating the incumbents.

Even so, future state races are all but certain to be assigned outsized significance by Wisconsin voters, and others, he said.

Upcoming elections, like the Supreme Court contest, will “become a kind of surrogate vote on collective bargaining and the governor,” Mr. Kraft said. Among the state’s residents, he said, “there was an understanding, and there probably still is an understanding, that the nation’s eyes are on Wisconsin.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2011 edition of Education Week as New Laws Curbing Public-Worker Bargaining Besieged

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