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OHIO TURNPIKE Negotiating in a tough climate



Published: Sat, January 22, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



An expert doesn't think Ohioans will have much sympathy for the workers.

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Ohio Turnpike workers set to strike Monday are negotiating a contract in a tough labor climate and could have a difficult time getting motorists on their side, labor analysts say.

The three-year contract for 704 toll takers and 293 maintenance workers expired Dec. 31. The extension they agreed to also has expired, leaving workers poised to strike at 12:01 a.m. Monday over wages and health care if talks scheduled for Sunday fail to produce an agreement.

It would be the first strike since the Ohio Turnpike opened in 1955.

The Ohio Turnpike Commission has said little about talks that took place this past week, but noted earlier this month that the employees currently earn an average of $20 per hour, more than turnpike workers in Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Public support will be needed for a successful turnpike strike, said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. But he doesn't think Ohioans will have much sympathy for toll workers.

"In a state where industrial jobs have been lost, people are going to say, 'Is that what they pay people to take my toll?' That's going to hurt," Chaison said.

The slowly recovering economy in Ohio doesn't make this a good time for a strike, he said.

"Most unions in the private sector, they just want to get through with bargaining and pick a better time for a fight," he said.

Flat rates

The Ohio Turnpike Commission has authorized the use of flat toll rates if workers strike. It's the same strategy that the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission successfully used to keep the tolls open while its workers were on strike during the busy Thanksgiving holiday.

The strike there lasted only a week.

Ohio Turnpike workers may have to do more than Pennsylvania workers to make motorists feel the impact of a walkout, said Youngstown State University professor John Russo, co-director of the university's Center for Working Class Studies.

"Maybe they can have their fellow Teamsters slow down at the toll booths," Russo said.

Gary Tiboni, president of Teamsters Local 436, which represents Ohio Turnpike workers, said earlier this month that he's not concerned with what happened in Pennsylvania. Tiboni did not return calls seeking comment on the contract talks.

No E-ZPass

One advantage Ohio workers may have is that the state doesn't have automated E-ZPass lanes like Pennsylvania and other states.

The Ohio Turnpike decided not to invest in an E-ZPass system. Most of its customers are from out of state and a study showed that less than 13 percent would use it, spokeswoman Lauren Dehrmann said.

Turnpike supervisors are prepared to man enough toll stations to keep the flow of traffic moving on the 241-mile highway that runs through northern Ohio, Dehrmann said.

Although the turnpike continues to study E-ZPass, Dehrmann said job security in the face of automation is not an issue in the contract talks. Teamsters Local 436, however, accuses the turnpike commission of threatening workers with E-ZPass.




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