By Marc Kovac
Over the objections of Democrats and a handful of Republicans, the Ohio Senate on Wednesday approved sweeping changes to the state’s collective-bargaining laws.
The final vote on Senate Bill 5 was 17-16, and the legislation heads to the Ohio House for further deliberations.
Wednesday’s floor action capped six committee hearings and protests that drew hundreds of Tea Party members who support the legislation and thousands of union representatives who oppose it.
“We’ve heard from thousands of Ohioans on all sides of this debate in recent weeks, and this bill is better because of their participation,” Sen. Kevin Bacon, a Republican from the Columbus area and chairman of the committee that worked on the bill, said in a released statement. “Through 22 hours of testimony and more than 100 witnesses, we’ve produced a bill that balances the concerns and the livelihoods of our public employees with the need to restore fiscal accountability in Ohio.”
Lawmakers debated the bill more than three hours before a packed Senate chambers, with several hundred proponents and opponents stifling cheers and jeers throughout the afternoon. But they yelled at individual lawmakers and chanted after the vote as they left the chamber.
Sen. Shannon Jones, a Republican from Springsboro and primary sponsor of the bill, called the changes “long overdue.”
“The time has come to make some very tough decisions,” she said. “Our state budget faces and $8 billion deficit, thousands of Ohioans remain unemployed, companies are leaving our state. Financially, our state and local governments are at the breaking point.”
Jones said Senate Bill 5 balances the needs of employees and employers.
It would allow collective bargaining for all public employees but limit negotiations to wages, hours, terms and conditions — excluding other areas, including health-care-premium payments.
Both sides would be required to disclose more information about their contract demands. Pay rates and raises would be based on merit and employee performance, not just seniority.
Binding arbitration would be replaced with a process that ultimately puts contract decisions before locally elected officials.
And all public workers would be banned from striking.
“If we fail to take action, many state and local governments will have no other option but mass layoffs,” Jones said. “Our schools, our safety and our services are at risk because government can no longer afford to sustain the cost of [their work forces].”
Sen. Kris Jordan, a Republican from the Columbus area, added, “It will balance the needs of those who serve with what the local taxpayers are willing to pay.”
Gov. John Kasich applauded the Senate action Wednesday.
In a released statement, he said, “This is a major step forward in correcting the imbalance between taxpayers and the government unions that work for them. Our state, counties, cities and school districts need the flexibility to reduce their costs and better manage their work forces, and taxpayers deserve to be treated with more fairness.
“Senate Bill 5 is just one piece of a larger plan to create a jobs-friendly climate in Ohio that is essential to returning prosperity to our state.”
But Democrats remained critical of the legislation.
Sen. Tom Sawyer, a Democrat from Akron who was in office when the original collective-bargaining law was passed nearly 30 years ago, urged lawmakers to slow the legislative process and consider the potential impact of the changes being proposed.
“It has worked, and it is working,” Sawyer said of the existing law. “It may not be perfect, but I would submit [now] is not the time to tear this apart.”
“We just ran through a three-week sprint to destroy collective-bargaining rights for police officers, firefighters, teachers, prison guards and every other public employee,” said Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat from Canfield and ranking minority member of the committee that considered Senate Bill 5. “The manner in which we moved this bill from the committee to the floor was also seriously flawed.”
Schiavoni continued to raise the likelihood of the issue’s being placed before voters, if approved by lawmakers.
“We’re supposed to be crafting legislation and passing laws that are sensible, fair and just so that we will improve the equality of life in Ohio,” he said. “Senate Bill 5 is senseless, completely unfair and will hurt people in so many ways.”
Six Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the legislation.
Sen. Bill Seitz, a Republican from Cincinnati, said he actually supports 85 percent of the bill.
But he said he doesn’t back the bill’s treatment of police, fire and other safety workers, in terms of bargaining on safety and other issues. He also questioned how the changes would affect pensions, particularly for older employees.
But Seitz said his biggest concerns related to mechanisms in Senate Bill 5 to replace binding arbitration and employees’ right to strike — essentially giving public managers an unfair advantage and public workers no leverage in the bargaining process.
“There is no collective-bargaining process [with Senate Bill 5],” said Sen. Tim Grendell, a Republican from Chesterland. “Senate Bill 5 replaces public-worker collective bargaining with public-worker collective begging. ... Under Senate Bill 5, we lose the ability to bargain.”