Collective bargaining goes up for vote in Ohio

By JULIE CARR SMYTH | November 8, 2011 | 4:00 PM EST

Voters cast their ballots at the Wakeman Township fire station near Wakeman, Ohio Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011. Ohioans are deciding the winner of this year's drawn-out fight over a law limiting collective bargaining for 350,000 unionized public workers. The issue tops the Election Day list of ballot questions before the state's voters. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The fate of Ohio's contentious new public worker collective bargaining law went to voters Tuesday, wrapping up a campaign that pitted teachers, firefighters and police against Republican leadership in a swing state that often serves as a barometer of the nation's political mood.

Voters had the choice of retaining or jettisoning restrictions on how 350,000 workers can negotiate with the governments in the state. Labor and business interests poured more than $30 million into the nationally watched campaign.

The legislation sets mandatory health care and pension minimums for unionized government employees, bans public worker strikes, scraps binding arbitration and prohibits basing promotions solely on seniority.

In Cincinnati, Democrat Letitia James said that she voted to reject the law and that she wants safety forces and other government employees to be respected for their work.

"It's not like they are making a lot of money, and they are serving the public," said James, 49, who is unemployed. "I think collective bargaining helps keep things in balance at a time when you are seeing a lot of greed on the part of private companies that are using money that could go for employees to pay high bonuses to executives. I don't want that to happen to public employees."

At a quiet polling place in Bexley, a Columbus suburb, 32-year-old logistics analyst Adam Cluff said he had concerns about collective bargaining and voted to keep the restrictions.

"As a nonunion worker, if my job gets cut I don't have protection against getting fired," Cluff said. "Teachers — if they're upset over layoffs, they'll strike, they won't come in to work. It's more important to teach our kids than for teachers to worry about their own needs."

Celebrities came out on both sides of the campaign — with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and singer Pat Boone urging voters to retain the law, and former U.S. Sen. and astronaut John Glenn and the Rev. Jesse Jackson urging to scrap it. MSNBC's "The Ed Show" broadcast began two days of broadcasts from Columbus on Monday.

Republican Gov. John Kasich, who signed the bill into law, said Monday that Ohio needs the law to draw jobs and that local governments in Ohio have raised taxes 42 percent over the past decade.

"We can't have local governments dragging us down and making it more difficult to bring those jobs in here," he said. "And I tell you this, the rest of the country, these other states, they watch us, they learn from us."

Though police and firefighters make up a fraction of the workers affected by the law, they have dominated the debate.

Tricia Schneider, 46, was among a few dozen people who voted at one polling location in the Cincinnati suburb of Anderson Township early Tuesday. Schneider, a registered Republican who works in purchasing, said she's not a union member and had planned to vote to uphold the law — until she was influenced by her neighbor, a firefighter.

"He was so for the collective bargaining that I changed my mind," she said, adding that public employees perform valuable services and should be able to negotiate on safety issues.

We Are Ohio, the union-backed coalition fighting the law, raised $24 million, and Building a Better Ohio, the proponent campaign, about $8 million. Nearly $2 million in money from outside groups came into the state for the final push.

Signaling the importance of the outcome to the U.S. labor movement, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka led opponents' final push with rallies. Lee Saunders, secretary treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was to be in Ohio on Tuesday.

With opponents of the law well ahead in fundraising and polls, they were already terming their election-night events "celebrations."

Defenders of the law were quieter but still barraging the airwaves with ads emphasizing the overall economic benefits to the state of reining in government costs by giving local governments a leg up in negotiating with their employee unions.

The governor made a final argument on Twitter on Monday, citing five reasons to vote yes. Among elements he cited were a requirement that public workers pay 15 percent toward their health care; a prohibition against tying raises solely to seniority; and the fact it makes it "harder for bad teachers to hide behind the protections of a union contract."


Associated Press writers Ann Sanner in Columbus and Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.