COLUMBUS, Ohio — The bargaining rights of public workers in Ohio would be dramatically reduced and strikes would be banned under a bill narrowly passed by the state Senate on Wednesday.
The GOP-backed measure that would restrict the collective bargaining rights of roughly 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees squeaked through the state Senate on a 17-16 vote. Six Republicans sided with Democrats against the measure.
Firefighters and teachers shouted "Shame!" in the chamber as the legislation was approved and moved on to the GOP-controlled House, where it is likely to receive strong support.
The bill is similar to the Republican-supported collective bargaining bill in the Wisconsin legislature that has sparked national debate in its weakening of public employees' ability to negotiate contracts – although there are differences between the two. Wisconsin's bill exempts police and firefighters from the collective bargaining restrictions, while Ohio's does not. And the bill there would affect 175,000 unionized public workers.
The Ohio bill would ban strikes by public workers and establish penalties for those who do participate in walkouts. Unionized workers could negotiate wages, hours and certain work conditions but not health care, sick time or pension benefits. The measure would do away with automatic pay raises and base future wage increases on merit.
The legislation would also set up a new process to settle worker disputes, giving elected officials the final say in contract disagreements. Binding arbitration, which police officers and firefighters use to resolve contract disputes as an alternative to strikes, would be eliminated.
"It's a fair bill," said state Senate President Tom Niehaus, a southwest Ohio Republican. "It's more balanced and fair for the taxpayer whose money these elected officials will ultimately spend."
But Sen. Edna Brown, a Toledo Democrat, said the bill muzzles public employees.
"This bill tilts the balance of power toward management and does not give one new right to employees," she said.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican like his counterpart, Scott Walker, in Wisconsin, praised the development. Both have pushed the collective bargaining bills as part of budget-balancing measures.
"This is a major step forward in correcting the imbalance between taxpayers and the government unions that work for them," Kasich said.
Republican Sens. Tim Grendell, of Chesterland, and Bill Seitz, of Cincinnati, spoke out against the new provision to resolve disputes. Grendell said the process would turn workers into beggars before city councils and other officials who oversee them.
"No one can be a judge and advocate in their own cause," Seitz said. "That's called heads I win, tails you lose."
The bill had passed a Senate committee after leadership replaced Seitz on the panel after he expressed disappointment in the bill, a move that secured the votes needed to get the legislation before the full Senate.
Extra chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the public attending the debate in the Senate chamber. Prohibited from clapping, many wagged or waved their hands in response to pro-labor comments.
The bill now goes to the state House, where the GOP holds a 59-40 majority. If passed there, it would go to Kasich, a strong supporter.
Anthony Caldwell, spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, District 1199, said the union's focus will now turn to the House. Members there serve shorter terms and may be more vulnerable to repercussions at the ballot box than senators, he said.
"We hope that the members of the House will understand the valuable role working families play in their districts," he said. "The House is a two-year body. Whatever happens, people are going to remember that. This isn't just about union issues, this is about working people."
During the debate in the chamber, Republicans defeated Democrats' request to have the entire bill read aloud. GOP Sen. Scott Oelslager, of North Canton, sided with Democrats on that issue, as he did on the bill.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Shannon Jones, said the bill, which would change a 27-year-old Ohio law, is long overdue and would help state and local governments control costs.
"The time has come to make some very tough decisions," she told her Senate colleagues.
Jones said the bill is not an attack on the middle class, prompting snickering and coughs from members of the public in the crowded chamber. Democratic lawmakers pointed out teachers, pipefitters and public safety workers from their districts at the start of the hearing.
Standing in the Statehouse Rotunda after the vote, Columbus firefighter Terry Marsh said he understood Legislature's need to look for ways to save on costs and examine collective bargaining.
"But to ram something through within a few weeks is irresponsible, and to blame the budget woes of the state on the workers is a downright travesty," he said.
Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins and Julie Carr Smyth contributed to this report.
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