By Marc Kovac
Second in 5-day series
Ask Gene Branstool to describe what Ohio was like before public employees had collective bargaining, and he’ll tell you about a popular, though outspoken, home economics teacher in his rural hometown who nearly lost her job.
This was back when Branstool, a farmer and Democrat in an area dominated by Republicans, was a member of the local school board, before the 15 years he spent in the Ohio Legislature.
During a routine business meeting, Branstool and his fellow board members accepted the resignation of the aforementioned teacher after being told that she had agreed to the decision.
Turns out the teacher, who wasn’t afraid to voice her opinion, didn’t know anything about it. It was a decision made by her supervisor.
“Nobody [came] to her room,” Branstool said. “Nobody ever said, ‘Your lesson plans are shoddy.’ They were never there.”
In the end, the teacher appeared before the school board, and her contract was renewed.
“The community loved her as a home [economics] teacher,” Branstool said. “... That unjust dismissal probably had as much to do with us having a collective bargaining [law in the state as anything else].”
Branstool was the primary sponsor of what would become Ohio’s collective-bargaining law, guiding how hundreds of thousands of public employees have negotiated contracts for nearly three decades.
It’s that law that the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature and Gov. John Kasich hoped to change through Senate Bill 5. They and other proponents say the collective-bargaining pendulum has swung too far for the benefit of workers, at the expense of taxpayers who have to foot the bill for compensation packages that outpace those in the private sector.
“We’re just at the point where the balloon’s going to burst,” said state Sen. Kevin Bacon, a Republican from the Columbus area who was chairman of the committee that handled Senate Bill 5. “Not only have we gotten to a point where it’s not sustainable, we have a down economy at the same time. [Collective-bargaining reform] is something we have to do as part of the overall restoring of fiscal responsibility.”
But opponents are fearful that the sweeping change proposed in the legislation will take Ohio back to the days before public employees had a place at the negotiating table, ultimately leading to fewer police officers, firefighters, nurses, teachers and other workers who provide services taxpayers have come to expect. — and more strikes and worker unrest.
“I think the schools and government [are] better off when a person has a right to speak up,” Branstool said, adding later, “There’s not much you can do as an individual, but collectively, you can have some help and control some of your destiny.”
Tim Burga was a young man who had just received his union card in the days before Ohio had a collective-bargaining law on the books.
Some police officers didn’t have bulletproof vests. Some firefighters didn’t have proper safety equipment.
“It always struck me that firefighters were going and putting out fires wearing blue jeans,” said Burga, current head of the Ohio AFL-CIO. “They didn’t have the right to negotiate for fire-retardant uniforms and equipment.”
And then there were the work stoppages.
According to statistics compiled by the State Employment Relations Board, the governmental body with authority over public- employee union relations, there were 67 strikes in 1978, 56 in 1979 and 60 in 1980.
“In the ’70s and early ’80s, we would rank second and third in the nation with the number of public-employee strikes,” Branstool said.
The strikes weren’t just happening in the state’s big labor towns, like Youngstown and Toledo, he said. They were happening in rural communities in the legislative districts he would eventually represent.
And they were happening despite Ohio’s Ferguson Act, which outlawed public- employee strikes.
Branstool called that act “a mockery. It didn’t work. It’s like a lot of things; it would sound like it would work. ... you strike and you’re fired. But it didn’t work.”
At one point in the early 1980s, all public employees — police officers, firefighters, sewage plant workers and others — in one community near his home were on strike, Branstool said. The community was left with only a handful of police captains patroling the community in cruisers.
Branstool said he received calls from mayors and city officials saying something needed to be done. Communities needed standard rules and procedures to negotiate with their employees and avoid disruptions, particularly within safety personnel ranks.
Lawmakers tried on two other occasions to pass a collective-bargaining bill for public workers. Both times, Republican Gov. James Rhodes vetoed the bills, Branstool said.
By 1983, voters had elected Democrat Richard Celeste as governor, and Democrats had control of both the Ohio House and Senate, the latter by the slimmest of margins.
It was enough that year to pass the collective- bargaining law that has been on the books ever since, surviving subsequent Republican administrations and GOP-controlled legislatures.
The bill laid out procedures for public employees to come to the bargaining table and work out differences with management.
It banned some workers, such as police officers and firefighters, from striking and leaving communities without needed safety services. But in those instances, it provided a binding arbitration process, with final decisions on contract differences decided by an independent arbitrator.
Other public employees were still allowed to strike — a move that could ultimately benefit management in negotiations, Branstool said.
“There’s times that the employees will ask for more than is possible,” he said. “And the only thing you can do is say strike and be damned, right? I learned this from an old labor leader in Cincinnati. ... He said, ‘you know, everybody thinks when there’s a strike, it’s a load on management, whether it’s a factory producing product or whatever it is. He said, you wait. You know a striker doesn’t get paid. ... About the time the second check doesn’t show up ... it does force an agreement whether you like it or not.’ ”
The number of public- employee strikes has declined since the collective- bargaining law took effect. From fiscal 1984 through the end of fiscal 2011, there were a total of 210 such public strikes statewide, more than half of which (148) involved school employees, according to SERB. There were four strikes in fiscal 2009 and none in fiscal 2010 or 2011.
The law “forces management and labor to collaborate, to come together,” Burga said. “As a result, we’ve had very few work stoppages.”
“It’s worked for 27 years,” Branstool said.
Gone Too Far?
There were 3,270 public- employee contracts filed with SERB last year, covering 348,683 workers. That total included 190,745 school employees, 117,364 local government employees and 40,574 state employees.
It’s a drop in the bucket in comparison to the state’s total employment of more than 5 million, according to the latest count by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
That’s part of the issue for proponents of SB 5. It’s the majority of private- sector employees, they say, who are paying the bills for their public-sector counterparts.
Granted, they’re getting valuable public services in return — police and fire protection, garbage collection, sewage treatment, public education.
But Republican backers of SB 5 said contracts have become increasingly bloated and are not sustainable.
Particularly in a time of economic downturn, they say, private employees who are struggling to make ends meet are paying to ensure increased compensation — wages, health insurance, pensions and other benefits — for the public sector.
Proponents also say public employees tout wage freezes but continue to receive step increases — essentially pay raises, with workers moving up pay scales based on their years of experience, increased skills or education. In some cases, public managers have opted to pay more toward employees’ health insurance, cover part of their pension payment or provide increased paid time off instead of giving raises.
Once those terms are negotiated into a contract, it’s difficult to remove them from subsequent contracts unless public-employee unions agree, some say.
“These fringe benefits have built up over time as a backdoor approach to pay raises, and they’ve simply become unsustainable,” said Jason Mauk, spokesman for Building a Better Ohio, the group campaigning in favor of Issue 2. “... Contracts compound over time. Once you agree on something in a contract, you can’t just take it out when that contract expires. It has to come up for renewal every time. ... It’s nearly impossible to go in and remove those provisions without universal agreement on both sides, which is almost nonexistent.”
“The last contract becomes the next contract,” added state Sen. Shannon Jones, a Republican from the Cincinnati area and primary sponsor of SB 5.
“At what point are you going to say to the public that you don’t have to continue to pay for mistakes that were made by public officials 20 years ago? ... Ohio law right now doesn’t allow for that kind of negotiation to happen.”
But union officials counter that their members have been more than willing in recent years to make concessions in light of a difficult economy.
A study released by police and firefighter union groups pinpointed more than $1 billion in contract concessions made by public employees over the past three years.
“Ohio’s faced tough economic times prior to this law,” said Mark Sanders, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters. “... Collective bargaining has provided an avenue that we come and sit down at the table to make wise decisions on how we’re going to protect the public in these tough economic times.”
He added, “If a jurisdiction comes to the firefighters and says … we have a budget shortfall, guess what? We roll up our sleeves and get our pencils together ,and we try to make that work so that public safety doesn’t suffer.”