The Next Union Battlefield In Ohio: The Ballot Box

March 4, 2011 3:36 a.m.

As the Ohio state House prepares to take up the controversial collective bargaining and union rights provisions contained in the just-passed state Senate Bill 5, union supporters and Democrats are looking ahead to a battle that will put the legislation in the hands of people they say are on their side: the voters of Ohio.

Though they plan to fight SB 5 tooth-and-nail as it works its way through the Republican-controlled House, leaders of the SB 5 opposition tell TPM that they don’t expect to win there. There are 59 Republicans in the House and just 40 Democrats, meaning there’s little chance for a repeat of the drama seen in the Senate, where SB 5 passed by just one vote.

But, thanks to the eccentricities of Ohio law, passage in the House doesn’t mean SB 5 is guaranteed to go into effect. Though they more than likely can’t stop it in the legislature, the opposition can potentially block its implementation by promising to take it on at the ballot box. That means the fight over SB 5 could extend for months — maybe even all the way to November, 2012.Union leaders and Democrats have already begun shifting their focus to a referendum fight, which would require union supporters to gather hundreds of thousands of signatures in the days following an expected signing of SB 5 by Gov. John Kasich (R).

Once that’s done, the law could be placed on hold (meaning it wouldn’t go into effect at all) while Ohio waits to see what voters have to say about SB 5. And that’s a fight the Democrats say they can win.

“If I weren’t I’d be much less outspoken about this,” State Democratic chair Chris Redfern told TPM. “We’d be looking for ways we could fight this legally…but in this case I think the referendum process or the Constitutional Amendment process will give us a great opportunity not just to overturn bad policy but to win the political fight as well.”

A union leader on the ground in Ohio told TPM that his supporters will keep the pressure on SB 5 as it works its way through the House. A vote is expected next week. But as that fight rages, the leader said, union forces will begin gearing up for a signature drive to shut the bill down shortly after it reached Kasich’s desk.

That’s a good plan says the Democratic leader of the state House. In an interview Thursday, Rep. Armond Budish told TPM that try as he might, there’s no way his minority can stop the Republicans from passing SB 5. And don’t expect a large number of Republicans to come to the other side in the House like they did in the state Senate.

“The Republicans in the House generally are extremely conservative, and generally not supportive of the middle class,” Budish said. Members of the Republican leadership in the state House did not respond to requests for comment on SB 5.

Budish’s numbers in the House won’t allow him to stop or slow the bill as Democrats in other states have been able to. That fact has Budish looking ahead to a street fight as well.

“If the bill passes the House in a form that’s similar to what Senate Bill 5 is, I think it would devastate the middle class and I would support any kind of effort to repeal it or undo it at the ballot box,” he said. “It’s not common, but it has been done on numerous occasions.”

What comes next could be a long game for both sides. Even if Kasich sings SB 5 next week as many expect he will, it will be at least 90 days until the law goes into effect. That period will give the opponents of the bill the chance to gather the 231,147 signatures (based on 6% of the vote total in the 2010 gubernatorial race, as state law requires) they’ll need to put a repeal referendum on the ballot. They can start the process with just 1,000 signatures. The entire process is outlined here.

Just when an SB 5 repeal could appear on the ballot also depends how quickly the Republicans can get the bill signed. If the 90 days expire before July 6, the repeal referendum would appear on a Nov. 2011 ballot, when local elections are contested across the state. If the 90 days expire after July 6, the referendum would appear on the Nov. 2012 ballot – a presidential election year.

Democrats are confident they’ll win either way.

“Right now there’s not a groundswell of organized support to screw with collective bargaining,” Redfern said. “It’s really only coming out of legislature.”

Unions are joined with grassroots supporters across the state, Redfern said. At the same time, there aren’t the rallies supporting SB 5 one might expect from buisiness groups.
“That’s the great irony here, isn’t it?” he said. “If [collective bargaining] was really draining state budgets, you’d think the Chamber [of Commerce] or the manufacturer’s association or somebody would stand up and say, ‘yeah let’s screw with these collective bargaining units, that will make us stronger.'”

Redfern said that at the grassroots, his supporters are more fired up than he’s seen decades, while at the same time Republicans are having a hard time holding their base together to keep the bill moving.

But one neutral observer says the calendar will be the final arbiter of SB 5. Prof. Jonathan Entin of Case Western Reserve Law School in Cleveland, a political scientist and expert on Ohio politics, told TPM that union supporters would much rather see the SB 5 question on a ballot in 2012 than at the end of this year.

Entin drew a line between what’s happening in Ohio and the battles of Wisconsin, where he said Gov. Scott Walker (R) has overplayed his hand with a collective bargaining law that’s hard to defend. Kasich “is no stranger” to Ohio, Entin said, and is able to sell his proposal in a way that Walker may not.

“My sense is there may be a lot of people who think SB 5 is too extreme, but whether [union supporters] can translate that into a statewide majority to repeal it is a different question,” he said. “I’m honestly not sure how that will work.”

“I think if they have to have the referendum this year, it’s less likely that they can repeal it,” Entin said, pointing to low turnout in off-year elections, particularly among the Democratic base. “If they have the referendum next year, then they might have a chance. But I’d say even then I wouldn’t want to predict it.”

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