Upon taking office in 2005, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels identified the power of state employees’ unions as a root cause of his state’s fiscal woes. Daniels issued an executive order ending collective bargaining with the public employee unions on his first day as governor.
“Collective-bargaining rights have made government virtually unmanageable,” wrote Philip K. Howard in the Wall Street Journal. “Promotions, reassignments and layoffs are dictated by rigid rules, without any opportunity for managerial judgment.” Public union leaders end up sitting across the bargaining table from the politicians they help elect, and together they grow government – and the government employees’ salaries, benefits, and pensions.
Daniels started a trend. Over the next several years, a number of candidates were elected who were willing to risk major confrontations with the public employees unions. Chief among them are three governors: Chris Christie in New Jersey, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and John Kasich in Ohio. Compared to those three men, Daniels had it easy. His changes to the collective bargaining power of the public sector proceeded with relatively little unrest. In New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Ohio, there were protests and political combat.
Chris Christie’s colorful dust-ups with union leaders were widely circulated around the web in YouTube clips. Scott Walker grabbed national headlines as he tried to stand down fleeing Democratic state legislators, protesters in the capital, and union-organized recall efforts against his legislative allies. The pushback faced by John Kasich may not have produced dramatic footage, but it proved all too real.
Enter John Kasich
Kasich was elected in a closely contested governor’s race in 2010, beating Democratic incumbent Ted Strickland by 49 percent to 47 percent. (Libertarian and Green Party candidates got most of the remainder.) Kasich had served nine terms in Congress and was chairman of the House Budget Committee after Republicans won the 1994 national elections, so he was familiar with political controversy.
During his time on Capitol Hill, Kasich pushed the spending cuts in the controversial GOP budget proposals of the Newt Gingrich era and eventually arrived at a balanced-budget agreement with President Bill Clinton. A key swing state, Ohio is often viewed as a microcosm of the national electorate. Portions of the state are Democratic and union-friendly. Other parts are deeply conservative. In hard fought elections, Republicans sometimes win by appealing to the voters once known as Reagan Democrats: culturally conservative Ohioans who are sympathetic to unions and not reflexively Republican in their economic views. Kasich managed to win many of these voters, even though his Democratic opponent hit him hard over his ties to Lehman Brothers, the investment firm whose collapse presaged the 2008 financial meltdown.
Despite the huge political divide within the state, the role unions play in Ohio should not be underestimated. By one estimate, Ohio has the sixth largest number of public sector union members of any state in the country. The Buckeye State has twice as many public employee union members as Scott Walker’s Wisconsin. This made it very politically risky for a governor who had just been narrowly elected, with some help from Reagan Democrats, to take on organized labor.
But Kasich was undeterred. He felt that unfettered collective bargaining by public sector unions was hurting both the state fiscal climate, as well as that of many cities and towns in Ohio. So he quickly proposed legislation that in some respects went even further than Wisconsin’s.
Under the terms of Kasich’s legislation, Ohio government workers would be restricted from negotiating on hours, discipline issues, transfers, equipment and outsourcing of services, staffing levels, and teacher-student ratios in public schools. The Wisconsin collective bargaining changes touched none of these issues.
Kasich also wanted to end binding arbitration for contract disputes. Walker’s Wisconsin bill still allowed binding arbitration for local and county employees. “Unions like arbitration because it takes power away from elected legislatures, city councils and country commissions,” Karl Rove explained in an op-ed at the time. Reuters reported, “Opponents say this effectively ends collective bargaining, because the employer always is able to come out on top,” quoting a Republican legislator who voted against Kasich’s proposal as describing the provision as “heads I win, tails you lose.”
All public workers, not just police officers and firefighters, would be banned from going on strike (this also went further than Wisconsin). Employees would be affirmed in their right not to join a union. If they declined to join, the unions couldn’t forcibly take their money in dues. Big Labor did not appreciate being starved of the money. The right to join unions, as well as to bargain collectively over wages and certain work conditions, would remain protected. Public workers’ time off would be limited to five days a week. All government employees would have to pay 15 percent of their health care premiums, while another 10 percent of their salaries would go toward their pensions.
Senate Bill 5
These proposals eventually came together in legislation known as Ohio Senate Bill 5 (SB 5). The state senate passed SB 5 by a razor-thin 17 to 16 margin. Six Republican state senators defected. The bill was then advanced to the House where, with some modifications, it passed by a somewhat more comfortable 53 to 44. Kasich signed SB 5 into law on March 31, 2011, proclaiming it “gives local governments and schools powerful tools to reduce their costs so they can refocus resources on key priorities like public safety and classroom instruction.”
It was a tough battle even up to that point. The teachers’ unions, as well as the police and firefighters’ unions, were bitterly opposed. Even some Republicans were reluctant to cross organized labor. The Democrats resisted changes to collective bargaining, knowing that this was politically risky for Kasich and his supporters. But Kasich had some reasons to be optimistic.
In contrast with their union leaders, Ohio’s rank-and-file union membership wasn’t as left-wing as their counterparts in Wisconsin. The Republican-controlled legislature could pass measures limiting public sector unions by a majority vote; in Wisconsin Democrats had many procedural tools at their disposal to hamper legislation. Unlike Madison, Columbus is not a hotbed of large-scale protest. Kasich would have a chance to get the law passed and let the matter settle in with Ohio’s electorate.
But on the weekend of April 1, opponents of the new law gathered more than 3,000 signatures to initiate a referendum to overturn it, a campaign organized and funded by labor unions. Anti-SB 5 forces then had until the end of June to collect signatures equal to 6 percent of the voters who turned out in the 2010 gubernatorial election, with at least half the state’s 88 counties represented among the signatures.
This would be a tall order for any grassroots political movement, but not for labor unions. Less than two weeks before the deadline, referendum proponents paraded around the state capitol. They were able to submit 1,298,301 signatures to Ohio’s secretary of state, easily breaking the previous record. To put this in perspective, Kasich received 1,889,180 votes to be elected governor of Ohio.
“We Are Ohio” Speaks For Unions
Behind this effort was a group called “We Are Ohio.” Judging from its financial support, it could have more accurately been called “We Are Ohio’s Unions.” According to Ohio activist Jason Hart’s analysis of numbers released by the secretary of state, more than $15.4 million of We Are Ohio’s budget came from unions in the Buckeye State. National unions and left-wing political action committees contributed another $13.4 million. Individual Ohioans contributed a shade more than $353,000 while non-union groups in Ohio gave less than $186,000.
The result was a ballot initiative called Issue 2. A vote in favor of the issue would ratify Kasich’s changes to public sector collective bargaining. If Issue 2 failed, SB 5 would be overturned and the previous collective bargaining powers would go back into effect. Kasich and his allies in Building a Better Ohio enthusiastically endorsed a yes vote on the referendum question; unions under the umbrella of We Are Ohio organized for a no vote. The battle was joined.
Almost immediately, the police and firefighter unions were at the forefront of the media campaign against Issue 2. They claimed that keeping SB 5 on the books would prevent them from getting equipment that they needed, like bulletproof vests for police officers. They argued that it could impede benefits for public safety workers killed in the line of duty. And perhaps most chillingly, they told Ohio voters that 51,000 government employees would lose their jobs under the law, two-thirds of them police officers and firefighters.
“When you reduce staffing you reduce the availability of people to be able to respond to emergencies,” argued Jim Carney, of the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters. “Without the ability to negotiate for staffing levels, we lose firefighters.” One ad opposing Issue 2 featured an Ohio grandmother whose granddaughter was saved by firefighters. In the commercial, she said that proved public sector unions should be able to negotiate staffing levels because “fewer firefighters can mean the difference between life or death.”
There were similar complaints from the police. Thomas Bell, chief of police in Marion, Ohio, wrote an op-ed opposing Issue 2 and slamming restrictions on public sector collective bargaining. “The employees at our department have done their part, giving up more than $480,000 this year alone. That comes in the form of give-backs, furlough days, higher health care contributions and concessions,” Bell wrote. “Our police department is supposed to have 69 officers, and we have only 57. We cannot continue to do more with less without tragic results.” Paramedics also got into the act, with an ad warning of slower response times.
Even some supporters of SB 5 feared the inclusion of public safety workers. As the bill was being finalized, Ohio activist Jason Hart urged legislators to “exempt police, firefighters, and the highway patrol from most – or all – provisions of the bill.” But politically, the tide had been turning against the teachers’ unions. Chris Christie in New Jersey had some success in public confrontations with union leaders—and even some rank-and-file members. Teachers nevertheless played a significant role in the “no on Issue 2” campaign.
Chillicothe teacher Portia Boulger, a former Ohio teacher of the year, forcefully denounced Kasich at a March rally, saying SB 5 proved he didn’t respect teachers like her. “I’ve been working since I was 13 and he wants to take my retirement away from me. Is that respect? Is that respect? No it’s not,” Boulger thundered. “He cares nothing about me. He cares about the Koch brothers and the money they put in his pocket. And I’m extremely angry and upset.” Asserting that she is not “greedy,” Boulger concluded Kasich “doesn’t care about me or any of my kind.”
Unions also rallied veterans against Issue 2, saying it would endanger their benefits. “We didn’t expect this kind of homecoming when we came back,” said an AFL-CIO blog, quoting a Columbus firefighter who had served in both Operation Desert Storm and in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The same union blog cited another Columbus fireman and war veteran: “I never expected to have to fight our own government…to have a voice in my own safety and work conditions.”
Many of these charges against Issue 2 were factually dubious. Public sector unions would still be allowed to bargain collectively over safety equipment. There would be no automatic cuts in public employee salaries and benefits. Unions made misleading claims about how much public sector employees made compared to their private sector counterparts, suggesting that government workers made about 6 percent less annually. Yet when benefits are factored in, the Center for Retirement Research concluded that public sector compensation in Ohio was about 9 percent higher than for the private sector. A paper by American Enterprise Institute scholars Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine that also accounted for job security estimated a far larger advantage for Ohio’s government workers. However, media outlets cried foul when Issue 2 proponents relied on these larger estimates.
Even some of Kasich’s presumed political advantages turned into disadvantages during the fight over Issue 2. The larger protests in Wisconsin may have elicited a backlash in favor of Walker’s efforts to limit collective bargaining. There were no legislators fleeing Columbus for Illinois, and no real pro-SB 5 backlash. Kasich and Republicans in the state legislature had already balanced the state budget, in part by cutting aid to local governments. That meant Issue 2 wasn’t necessary to solve an immediate state budget crisis (though it would obviously have helped long-term) and if it failed, cuts to local aid could be blamed for any layoffs or tax increases that resulted from unreasonable union demands.
Ohio’s SB 5 never took effect before Issue 2, while the Wisconsin measure had been in force for several months before the recall elections occurred. In an interview with John McCormack of the Weekly Standard, Walker suggested that allowing voters to see the real-world benefits of limiting collective bargaining, as opposed to just the imagined costs, helped. “The mayor of Milwaukee, who ran against me for governor, had said in March this is going to kill us, it’s going to be devastating, it’s going to be awful for our budget,” Walker told the magazine. “Well, the day before the recall election, August 8, they had to acknowledge [a new report showing] their net savings for the city of Milwaukee came in the range between 11 and 17 million dollars per year.”
Kasich Outspent, Outgunned
Unions also massively outspent the supporters of Issue 2. By the end of October, We Are Ohio had spent $17 million trying to defeat the initiative. Building a Better Ohio had spent just $6 million trying to defend it. By the time the vote took place, it is believed the discrepancy was more than $20 million spent by pro-labor We Are Ohio—perhaps $30 million counting other union allies—to $8 million by pro-Issue 2 Building a Better Ohio.
The Ohio Education Association spent at least $4.75 million on defeating Issue 2 while the National Education Association (NEA) contributed $2 million. The National Labor Table donated $3 million and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) gave $1.5 million. Compare this to the unions’ national political expenditures: according to the Center for Responsive Politics, AFSCME spent $4.5 million on all 2010 races and the NEA devoted $7 million.
In the end, the result wasn’t even close. The polls had predicted a union victory over Issue 2 for months. We Are Ohio successfully represented itself as a bipartisan movement. And the polls turned out to be right. Roughly 61 percent of Ohio voters voted against Issue 2 and in favor of lifting Kasich’s restrictions on public sector collective bargaining. The initiative passed in only six of Ohio’s 88 counties, all of them rock-ribbed Republican areas that gave Kasich more than 60 percent of the vote.
There were no exit polls, but a post-election survey commissioned by the AFL-CIO found that 86 percent of union members and 73 percent of union households voted no—as did 52 percent of non-union members and 57 percent of non-union households. Independents broke against Issue 2 by 57 percent to 43 percent. Self-described moderates did so by an even more staggering 70 percent to 30 percent. Voters who had supported Kasich in 2010 but opposed Issue 2 now disapprove of the governor’s job performance by 62 percent to 38 percent. (Interestingly, Ohio voters in this same election approved 66 percent to 34 percent an amendment to the state constitution outlawing the “individual mandate” that they buy health insurance, a stunning rebuke of President Obama and his signature health-care legislation.)
“I’ve heard their voices, I understand their decision and, frankly, I respect what people have to say in an effort like this,” Kasich responded after the results came in. “And as a result of that, it requires me to take a deep breath, you know, and to spend some time reflecting on what happened here.” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka crowed, “Ohio sent a message to every politician out there: Go in and make war on your employees rather than make jobs with your employees, and you do so at your own peril.”
Both sides are likely to go back to their corners and then come out swinging again. Kasich has signaled that he is likely to bring back the labor reforms on a piecemeal basis rather than as part of a comprehensive package like SB 5. Meanwhile, the unions have been emboldened in Ohio and elsewhere. After achieving mixed results in pushing for the recall of Wisconsin Republican legislators who supported limits on collective bargaining, this makes it more likely that organized labor will still try for the recall of Scott Walker. If unions succeed in recalling Walker, International Association of Firefighters President Harold Schaitberger told the Washington Post, “Now you’re talking about having significant impact in the 2012 election cycle for many politicians and putting two battleground states in strong play for our candidates.”
How much success unions will have is unclear. Some analysts believe union spending on Issue 2 will hamper their efforts in 2012. “They’re tapped out,” Republican consultant Ron Bonjean told Fox News, speaking of organized labor after the battles in Ohio and Wisconsin. “They’re spending all their dues defending themselves.” Others see this as the beginning of a major resurgence for Big Labor. “What happened in Ohio last night matters everywhere,” Trumka said after the election. His political director at the AFL-CIO called the outcome a “roadmap” for Democrats and unions in the next election. Even some Democratic strategists were skeptical, however. Former Bill Clinton adviser Doug Schoen told reporters it would be a “mistake” to interpret the result as “an endorsement of populism, leftism, unions.”
Union activists are likely to continue viewing this as part of their thirty years’ war, with governors like Kasich, Walker, and Christie the major enemies of the labor agenda. Joseph McCartin, a Georgetown University labor professor who authored the book Collision Course, has written that these governors reveal “how powerful the ghost of PATCO” (the union representing the air traffic controllers fired by Reagan) “remained thirty years after the controllers’ strike.”
McCartin described Walker as pulling out a picture of Reagan before pushing his own bill to curb public employees’ unions. “You know this may seem melodramatic,” Walker is quoted as saying, “but thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan… had one of the defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air traffic controllers.” Chris Christie also cited Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in a major speech at the 40th president’s library, an address delivered at the height of speculation that Christie was going to run for president.
Governors like Kasich have some union activists pining for Reagan, as they insist today’s labor reformers are well to the president’s right. “Reagan had not set out to ‘drop a bomb’ on PATCO,” writes McCartin. “Unlike Walker, he had negotiated with the union and only drew the line at condoning an illegal strike.” McCartin continues, “Not only had Reagan never challenged the controllers’ bargaining rights, he had authorized his aides to exceed what the law had allowed in trying to reach an accord with the controllers during a budget season when he was seeking cutbacks elsewhere.”
“None of that seemed to matter thirty years later,” McCartin concludes ruefully. But some might say the same about the dire fiscal outlook of federal, state, and local governments as public sector unions continue their thirty year’s war. Even many voters concerned about the size and cost of government seem to accept the unions’ framing of the collective bargaining issue.
“What collective bargaining really means,” writes the Weekly Standard’s John McCormack, “is that a union effectively has power to veto changes to union members’ benefits–forcing local officials to choose between laying off public workers or raising taxes.” Until that is widely understood, the thirty years’ war will continue.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator and a frequent contributor to Labor Watch.