Ohio Referendum on Collective Bargaining Could Give Boost to Obama in 2012

The collective bargaining rights that sent public employees to the Wisconsin statehouse in droves last spring will now send Ohio voters to the polls this fall.

Whereas unhappy Wisconsinites could only challenge their state’s law through protests, recall elections and the courts, the Ohio constitution allows Buckeye State voters to hold a referendum on any law, given enough signatures are collected opposing it.

“This is the clearest test of attempts to change collective bargaining rights,” said John Green, the director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio. “In other states, this was done through administrative procedures or changes were made legislatively. There wasn’t this kind of straight-shot for voters to weigh in on collective bargaining directly.”

At issue is a multi-faceted law, known as Senate Bill 5, that eliminates public employees’ right to collectively bargain or strike and replaces the current system of seniority with a merit-based system when laying-off teachers or deciding pay increases.

It also requires public workers to pay at least 15 percent of their health insurance premiums and at least 10 percent of their salary to their pensions. If the ‘no’ votes prevail on the ballot initiative, known as Issue 2, Senate Bill 5 will be overturned and public employees will maintain their negotiating rights.

The latest Quinnipiac University poll shows 57 percent of Ohio voters support repealing the law, which would not go into effect until after a Nov. 8 “yes” vote. But while the majority of Ohioans say they oppose the law, many support specific pieces of it.

For example, 49 percent of respondents said they support replacing seniority-based pay increases with merit-pay compared to 40 percent who oppose it. Significant majorities also support requiring public employees to pay a larger share of their pensions and health care benefits.

Connie Wehrkamp, a spokeswoman for the Building a Better Ohio group that supports the senate bill, pointed out that private employees in Ohio pay, on average, 31 percent of their health insurance premiums and many do not have guaranteed pensions, unlike their public employee counterparts.

“In general, there are a lot of states like Ohio dealing with unsustainable costs at the state and local level that can be attributed to union contracts,” Wehrkamp said. “We’re either going to continue moving forward or we’ll take a step backward.”

But the success of labor unions to regain their right to negotiate for benefits, salaries and staffing levels on behalf of Ohio’s public employees is shaping up to have implications far beyond this battleground state.

“Organized labor has been revived in Ohio,” Green said. “Unions don’t like this piece of legislation, but politically it’s really helped them. They’ve mobilized members and some of that organization and enthusiasm may carry on in 2012 into the presidential election.”

While a labor union win this year could give President Obama a boost in a key battleground state next year, the ballot initiative has proved less of a boon for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

The Republican front-runner stumbled this week over his support for the collective bargaining limits, saying Tuesday at a campaign stop in Ohio that he was “not speaking about the particular ballot issues, those are up to the people of Ohio.”

On Wednesday Romney clarified that he was “110 percent” supportive of Gov. John Kasich’s attempt to cut budget deficits by scaling back collective bargaining rights.

Romney did not offer the same support for another Ohio ballot initiative that outlaws the individual mandate of Obama’s health care law. Instead, he said the issue “should be up to individual states.”

“I, of course, took my state in one direction,” Romney said, referencing the individual mandate he signed into law in Massachusetts. “They may want to go in a different direction. I don’t want to tell them what to do. That’s up to them.”

Compared to the collective bargaining issue, the individual mandate issue has gotten relatively little publicity.

“On the face of it, issue 3 might be unconstitutional,” Green said. “States don’t get to opt out of federal laws. We had a bloody civil war to solve that issue, and the people promoting issue 3 know that, but they want the heath care law to go to court.”

Issue 3 was put on the ballot before the Supreme Court decided to consider Obama’s health care law. If it passes, it will have little effect on actual policy, but will send a strong message, Green said.

“People who don’t like the national health care law will be very excited if it passes, because you will have a major battleground state voting against the health care bill,” he said.

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