Federal

Ohio Vote on Bargaining a Union Victory—For Now

By Michele McNeil — November 10, 2011 6 min read
Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich wipes his brow during a news conference at the Ohio Statehouse on Nov. 8 in Columbus. The state's new collective bargaining law championed by Kasich was defeated after a campaign that pitted firefighters, police officers, and teachers against the state's Republican establishment.

Voters in Ohio sent an unequivocal message to that state’s Republican governor and lawmakers last week that they went too far in reining in collective bargaining for teachers and other public employees. But analysts say the conflict between the GOP and teachers’ unions in Ohio and elsewhere is not over.

By an overwhelming, 22-percentage-point margin, Ohioans—even in heavily Republican counties—repealed Senate Bill 5, enacted earlier this year. It was a resounding defeat of a law that stripped teachers and other public employees of most collective bargaining rights, and many predicted the vote could have ripple effects in other states that have engaged in high-profile battles with unions, such as Wisconsin.

The message from unions now is: “Mess with us, cross us, and we will come after you, and you will pay the political price,” said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science and education at Drew University, in Madison, N.J.

Analysts predict the power struggle will continue, however, with Republicans likely to modify their strategy, including by taking smaller bites at collective bargaining by public employees.

On the Ballot

While 2011 is an off-year election, a smattering of state-level races and ballot measures are on tap. Among the highlights to watch for Nov. 8, along with the results of some already-decided races:

BALLOT MEASURES

Ohio
Voters will decide whether to approve or reject a new law that reduces teachers’ and other public employees’ collective bargaining power.

Louisiana
Voters on Oct. 22 approved dedicating future tobacco-settlement revenue to scholarships for students attending state colleges.

Colorado
Proposition 103 would raise sales and income taxes temporarily to support public education. The vote is Nov. 1.

STATE LEGISLATURES

Four states are holding regular legislative elections: Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia. (Louisiana had a primary Oct. 22 and will have a run off Nov. 19.) A number of other states are holding special elections.

GOVERNORS’ RACES

Kentucky

Steve Beshear (D) Donald Williams (R)

Mississippi

Johnny DuPree (D) Phil Bryant (R)

Louisiana (decided Oct. 22)

WINNER
Bobby Jindal (R) Tara Hollis (D)*

West Virginia (decided Oct. 4)

WINNER
Earl Ray Tomblin (D) Bill Maloney (R)

*Gov. Jindal won an open primary that pitted Republicans and Democrats against each other. Hollis finished second.

SOURCE: National Governors Association; National Conference of State Legislatures

The Ohio referendum, known as Issue 2, was perhaps the most closely watched ballot fight of the 2011 off-year election season nationally. But voters in other states made important decisions, too, as governors in Kentucky and Mississippi were elected, and Republicans took control of Virginia’s legislative and executive branches for just the second time in more than a century. In addition, the state teachers’ union in Michigan prevailed in a recall of a key state legislator.

The Ohio law was pushed through the state’s GOP-controlled legislature in March with strong Republican support, including from Gov. John Kasich, who was elected in 2010. That’s the same year Republicans took control of both chambers of the legislature.

In school districts, the measure would have blocked bargaining over class sizes, school assignments, and provisions that restrict principals from assigning workloads and job responsibilities. It would have forbidden districts to give preference in layoff decisions to teachers with more seniority, a provision similar to those approved in a number of other states this year, such as Florida and Idaho. The law also would have created a merit-pay system for teachers, though it was unclear how educators’ performance would be judged.

After years of being virtually untouched because of their formidable political force, public employees’ unions this year were on the receiving end of a flood of far-reaching policy fights to restrict their power, in states including Wisconsin, Idaho, Indiana, and New Jersey.

Labor Pushback

But the unions have responded fiercely.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, billed the Ohio statute as an assault on the middle class—a common theme that’s been playing out in campaigns at all levels, including in the 2012 presidential race.

“Ohio voters made it clear to them that there is a price to pay for turning your back on the middle class,” Ms. Weingarten said in a statement after the vote.

In Wisconsin, after pushing through legislation earlier this year that effectively ended collective bargaining in that state for most public employees, including teachers, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who was elected in 2010, is now the subject of a recall effort. If a petition drive is successful—and many predict the Ohio vote will help buoy that effort—his job could be at stake in next year’s election.

Also in last week’s elections, in Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House education committee, Paul Scott, was recalled after being targeted by the Michigan Education Association for weakening teacher tenure and cutting education funding.

But those efforts don’t mean the collective bargaining issues are going away, education and political experts say.

Elements of Ohio’s SB 5 likely will be re-envisioned and packaged differently there and even in other states, said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank.

“Americans have never been radicals,” said Mr. Hess in an postelection seminar in Ohio sponsored by KnowledgeWorks. SB 5 was a “smart, thoughtful, and well-considered” way to empower state and local officials to solve budget problems, argued Mr. Hess, who writes an opinion blog for Education Week’s website. But, he added, people don’t want to be “pushed too fast and too far.”

Mr. McGuinn of Drew University agreed in part, saying that Republicans are likely to tackle smaller pieces that attack specific problems, such as rising health-care costs among public employees.

“There will probably be less of a frontal assault,” Mr. McGuinn said.

Patricia Frost-Brooks, left, president of the Ohio Education Association, hugs Courtney Johnson, an 11th grade teacher from Ironton, Ohio, at a victory party in Columbus, Ohio, after Senate Bill 5 was defeated on Nov. 8.

What’s Next

Gov. Kasich hasn’t signaled his next steps in Ohio.

“I’ve heard their voices,” he said in a press conference after the referendum, speaking of the voters. “As a result of that, it requires me to take a deep breath.”

For the governor, part of SB 5 was a money-saving initiative. Gov. Kasich had argued that the law would drive down costs for taxpayers by phasing out expensive concessions made to unions during the negotiating process. His administration had estimated that the law would save local governments, including school districts, more than $1 billion per year by reducing health-care costs, requiring employees to contribute more to their pensions in some cases, and doing away with automatic salary increases.

Without it, Gov. Kasich said, state officials will try to work with local governments to deal with budget crunches. But, he said, “there’s no bailout coming, because frankly there’s no money. It’s going to be very important for local communities to continue to deal with their cost challenges.”

The unions acknowledge there are legitimate issues that need to be addressed, and that state and local governments are still struggling

“There are other ways to raise revenue than to take a potshot at the unions,” said Lily Eskelsen, the vice president of the 3.2-million member National Education Association, during the Ohio seminar, without getting specific. “We have a financial crisis. What a wonderful opportunity to blame people like teachers for causing a crisis that, of course, Wall Street greed caused.”

Despite the overwhelming rejection of the collective bargaining law, last week’s election in Ohio wasn’t a slam dunk for Democrats. Ohio voters, by an even bigger margin, approved a constitutional amendment requiring the state to opt out of certain parts of President Barack Obama’s health-care program, dealing a blow to Mr. Obama in a swing state as he faces a tough re-election battle.

Mixed Messages

In addition, Ohio can’t be compared with a lot of other states because of its deep history of labor activism and heavily blue-collar workforce, both of which helped defeat the collective bargaining law, Mr. McGuinn pointed out.

Two other states had more-predictable election-night finishes.

In the two governors’ races decided Nov. 8, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who had been running far ahead in the polls all along, was re-elected in Kentucky, and Mississippi voters elected Republican Phil Bryant after fellow Republican Haley Barbour was barred from running because of term limits.

But in Virginia, Republicans—who already control the governor’s office and the House of Delegates—seized effective control of the Senate with a 20-20 split, in which the Republican lieutenant governor would break any ties. It represents only the second time in more than a century that the GOP had so much power in that state, local media reports say.

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Assistant Editor Sean Cavanagh contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Ohio Vote to Scrap Bargaining a Labor Victory—For Now

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