Ohio Voters Reject Law Limiting Public Unions

Ohio Voters Reject Law Limiting Public Unions

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - November 9, 2011

Ohio voters on Tuesday gave Democrats and President Obama a welcome shot of the arm in the key battleground state by rejecting Republican Gov. John Kasich's signature achievement: a law that curbs collective bargaining rights for public employees. Voters resoundingly defeated the measure, 63 percent to 37 percent.

The repeal also delivers a big win to big labor, which took a bruising earlier this year in Wisconsin and which makes up a substantial slice of the Democratic base. The union-supported group opposing the law, We Are Ohio, raised $24 million for this battle, according to the Associated Press. The difference between the repeal effort  in the Buckeye State and the failed one in Wisconsin is that voters in the latter state had to recall three lawmakers who had voted to curb bargaining rights (only two were recalled) to move toward repeal, while in Ohio voters themselves were able to decide the law's fate. A yes vote meant the law would be upheld while a no vote meant it would be repealed. Ohio is home to 350,000 public workers, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka rallied voters in Ohio on Tuesday.

"One message rang loud and clear tonight in Ohio and across the country: Those who spend their time scapegoating workers and pushing a partisan agenda will only strengthen the resolve of the working people," Trumka said in a statement Tuesday night after the results came in.

Election Day in Ohio wasn't all bad for Republicans. Voters rejected a central pillar of President Obama's health care law through another ballot measure. Issue 3 will amend the state's constitution to prohibit the federal government from forcing residents to carry health insurance. The move was also expected and is mostly symbolic, as federal law supersedes that of the state. (The so-called individual mandate central to Obama's reforms faces a constitutional challenge of its own, which is wending its way through the court system.) Nonetheless, the vote is perceived as a rebuke of the president's signature accomplishment. 

While the labor vote came in an off-year election, Democrats insist that the groundwork has been laid in the state for 2012 -- when Obama faces an uphill battle and low approval grades despite winning Ohio in 2008 -- and that Ohioans have encouraged other states to take on their Republican-controlled legislatures. "It's almost as if a team is marching for a touchdown and has a lot of momentum built up and throws an interception caught by the other team: It shifts the momentum to the other side," says Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University.

A pair of polls had forecast these results, but labor and other groups that invested resources on the repeal effort remained cautious until the precincts closed Tuesday night. The ballot language was tricky; the term "collective bargaining" did not appear, so both sides spent much energy on educating voters.

Kasich, who was voted into office last cycle on the Republican wave that ousted incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland and five congressman from his party, signed the collective bargaining measure into law earlier this year, but it was put on hold after organizers collected and submitted 1.3 million signatures to put the law on the ballot -- a sign of grass-root strength in Ohio.

Polls show the governor's approval ratings are among the lowest in the country -- the latest had him at just 33 percent. A repeal of this law is seen as a "very, very substantial rebuke" of Kasich, says Beck. "It sends a message that voters are very dissatisfied with what the Republican legislature and the governor's office have done."

Kasich, a former congressman who campaigned on cutting the state's budget, became the face of the union restrictions he signed into law. He stuck by his bill, and his administration and supporters felt encouraged by the endorsements it received from prominent newspapers. On Election Day, Kasich used Twitter to encourage voters to support the legislation and cited "five reasons to vote yes." He argued that curbing bargaining rights holds workers more accountable for their jobs, weeds out bad teachers from the school system, and relieves burdens on tax payers by asking workers to contribute 10 percent of their earnings towards their pensions. But unlike the Wisconsin bill, Ohio's did not exempt police and firefighters, a constituency that is "highly respected by the public . . . and active in the campaigns," says Beck.

But the bill had support from outside groups as well, including the conservative FreedomWorks, which supported an extensive ground operation. "We are going to come out of this stronger with our organization on the ground; we had good training and put in place a good practice for 2012," Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, told RCP as results started to come in Tuesday night. "We were vastly outspent, and will likely be outspent next year. But going up against the unions is always tough." Building a Better Ohio, the in-state group supporting the legislation, raised $8 million for this effort, according to the Associated Press.

State Republicans stood by the law after its defeat. "While 'repeal' may have made for a handy campaign slogan, it's no replacement for the fair reforms which would have given local communities and schools the flexibility they needed to get taxes and spending under control," Ohio GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine said in a statement.

The referendum may also have an impact on the way the GOP-led legislature in Ohio operates moving forward and on 2012 candidates who supported the bill. "The Republican legislature is not going to be as comfortable in supporting what [Kasich] wants to do going forward because they are going to be looking over their shoulder," worried about getting re-elected, says Beck. "In the presidential race, Democrats are going to say the Republicans have been captured by ideological extremists, and SB5 [the collective bargaining bill] plays right into that."

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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