SB5: the election factor

As a battleground state, Ohioans are used to being the focus of national attention during presidential elections. The general election of 2011, though, may again bring Ohio to center stage.

As the fight over Senate Bill 5 burns like wildfire through Ohio, the issue is beginning to have more far-reaching effects as the White House becomes involved.

In a White House interview with Romona Robinson of Cleveland’s WKYC-TV on April 26, President Barack Obama spoke out against the bill.

“Let’s certainly not blame public employees for a financial crisis that they had nothing to do with,” Obama told Robinson. “And let’s not use this as an excuse to erode their bargaining rights.”

Obama said public workers might have to provide wage concessions to help governments handle diminishing revenue, but he disagreed with limiting their collective bargaining rights.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich responded with a slew of verbal shots against the president.

“The president of the United States has, I think, a $13 trillion debt. Why doesn’t he do his job?” Kasich said. “When he gets our budget balanced and starts to prepare a future for our children, maybe he can have an opinion on what’s going on in Ohio.”

The rhetoric between Obama and Kasich sums up the last two volatile months in Ohio.

Kasich signed the controversial bill into law March 31. The bill, written by state Sen. Shannon Jones, dramatically reduces the power of unionized state workers, including teachers and firefighters. It now permits union negotiations for wages, hours and working conditions but still bans collective bargaining for benefits. It also prohibits public employees from going on strike and eliminates binding arbitration.

The bill could save the state as much as $1.3 billion, according to the Office of Collective Bargaining, because it cuts pay increases for public workers and would require them to pay more for health insurance, while limiting sick leave and vacation time.

Opponents of the SB 5, however, argue that the bill is an attack on union rights.

Several unions and political organizations are working to get a referendum on the ballot to repeal the bill. We Are Ohio, a coalition of labor unions and liberal groups, is one organization petitioning the bill.

To place a referendum of the law on the ballot, 231,149 signatures are needed, while 1,000 are needed for petition language to be approved by the attorney general and secretary of state before additional petitions can be circulated.

Gary Carlile, member of We Are Ohio of the Mahoning Valley, said he is unaware of the amount of signatures collected, but said he believes at least 1,000 were obtained since the group’s start on April 24.

The final date that signatures can be collected is July 20. If enough signatures are collected from a minimum of 44 different counties, the referendum will be placed on the ballot in 2011.

If this happens, SB 5 could have an effect on the presidential election of 2012, in addition to the general election of 2011.

Originally, Republicans rushed to get SB 5 passed to law in order to avoid motivation from the Democrats that may have carried over to the presidential election of 2012. Republicans knew that backlash from the law would likely create a referendum on the ballot that would bring Democrats to the polls. But according to Paul Sracic, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University, some effects are likely to carry over to the 2012 election.

“Some of [the effects] are going to depend on whether the referendum makes it on the ballot,” Sracic said.

The referendum would excite national interest, particularly from the Democrats. Obama could use this issue to get voters to the polls in his support, support he greatly needs to win Ohio’s electoral votes in 2012.

If SB 5 remains law, though, Sracic said it could have a negative effect on the Democrats and Obama’s campaign.

“We might see a real demoralized union,” Sracic said. “Unions are some of the biggest donors to political parties, and cash-starved unions could have a real negative effect on Obama getting re-elected.”

Sracic added that the bill might also effect who runs against Obama. He said before the bill passed, there was talk of Kasich running as the Republican candidate for president, but recent backlash has ruined his chances. Sracic is unsure of who a contender may be, though.

Although future results remain unknown, a SB 5 referendum is likely to be on the 2011 ballot. SB 5 will remain a hot-button issue as the general election approaches.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that 62 percent oppose efforts to strip government workers of their rights to collectively bargain. The same poll also shows that 77 percent of Americans believe public employees should have the same rights as workers in the private sector to negotiate over health care, pensions and other benefits.

Many teachers like DeBorah Graham, assistant professor of teacher education at YSU, are part of the move to get the referendum on the ballot. Graham is a member of the Senate Executive Committee of the Academic Senate at YSU and said she hopes the bill is reversed.

“I’m not real sure of the ultimate fall out. My hope is that it will be overturned,” she said. “It’s really frightening to me to see that teachers have less and less control over their employment.”