HANOVERTON, Ohio – An aggressive Republican drive to weaken the labor rights of government workers appears to have crested, at least in Ohio, where voters are expected to throw out a far-reaching anti-union law this week.
The referendum over collective bargaining for public employees, potentially the most important contest in off-year elections around the nation, is being closely watched for clues about shifting voter trends in a state expected to play its usual outsized role in next year’s presidential contest.
Barely seven months ago, newly elected Gov. John Kasich joined other Republican governors, including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, in defying angry street demonstrations to push through a measure designed to curb the power of public-employee unions.
Tuesday’s vote “will reverberate in a major way across the country, because Ohio is still Ohio,” said Dale Butland of Innovation Ohio, a liberal think tank with ties to organized labor. “We are one of the linchpins of any presidential election.”
Kasich, the focus of both sides in the referendum fight, touts his blue-collar roots as the son of a postman. But he warns that a victory by organized labor would undercut his efforts to hold the line on government spending and rebuild the state’s economy.
“Look, I understand that people are nervous about this in the public sector,” he told a northeastern Ohio rally in support of the anti-union law he signed in March. But, he added, “if we want to continue on this path of pulling Ohio out of this ditch, the state of Ohio has to be responsible.”
The arguments by Kasich, whose popularity has fallen sharply since his election a year ago, appear to have swayed few voters. Public and private polling indicates that Ohioans, by a substantial margin, want to overturn the new law.
Strategists on both sides say conservative legislators and the new governor, emboldened by a Republican election sweep, overreached when they added curbs on collective bargaining to a measure requiring government workers to pay a larger share of their pension and health care costs.
Repeal would represent a sorely needed victory for organized labor and its Democratic allies. A related effort fell short last summer in Wisconsin, where Democrats outraged by anti-union efforts tried to change the balance of power by forcing Republican lawmakers into recall elections.
The Ohio referendum, placed on the ballot by organized labor in a petition drive that drew more than a million signatures, is focused on the law itself. Under the statute, government officials can effectively impose contract terms on public employees when they can’t come to terms over wages, the only issue subject to bargaining under the GOP overhaul.
But unlike Wisconsin, where Republicans exempted first responders from a new law stripping public employees of most collective bargaining rights, Ohio’s law applies to all government workers, including police and firefighters.
That is creating unusual alliances, with law-enforcement groups like the Fraternal Order of Police, which often endorse Republican candidates, siding with Democrats in the repeal push.