Showdown in Ohio on Public Sector Unionism

It looks as if Ohio will not be following Wisconsin’s lead in attempting serious public-sector labor reform. Polls indicate Buckeye State voters next Tuesday will reject a comprehensive package of labor reforms, known as Senate Bill 5, that the Ohio legislature passed this year with support from Gov. John Kasich (R). Although voters do approve many of the individual elements of the package, including merit pay for teachers and a hike in employee pension and health contributions, opponents have successfully portrayed the whole as an overstuffed “Republican wish list” mixing short-term fiscal savings with longer-term measures aimed at weakening unions’ political strength over the longer term.

Last Tuesday I spoke at Capital University Law School in Columbus as part of a two-on-two debate moderated by Dean Rich Simpson on Issue 2, the measure that would repeal S.B. 5. The speakers defending the union position spent relatively little time defending the particulars of current union benefit packages (which include $3 million pensions for some Columbus police commanders, as the Buckeye Institute has noted, though overall Ohio seems to generate fewer compensation horror stories than do the Northeastern states, Illinois or California). Instead, they concentrated on defending the favorable state laws that put the unions in such a strong bargaining position in the first place. Prominent among these: 1) provisions in current law obligating Ohio counties and towns to bargain with unions over staffing and a wide range of other workplace policies unrelated to wages, health or compensation; and 2) provisions in current law providing that, on the event of a bargaining impasse, the issue will be handed over to an outside labor arbitrator whose say-so will bind the parties.

It happened that these were also the elements of S.B. 5 I thought most important, because over the long term keeping public unions from acquiring a stranglehold on local governance is indeed more important than saving a buck or even a lot of bucks in next year’s budget. Mandatory bargaining on topics of workplace organization (which makes it actively unlawful for the employer to take a principled stand refusing concessions on a given issue) and imposition of contract clauses by un-consented-to outside arbitrators are serious infringements of liberty as applied to private employers. As applied to public-sector employers, these rules have the distinctive vice of preventing voters and taxpayers from deciding how public programs will be run. In floundering public school systems, it is often union work rules as opposed to teacher compensation that foils every reform impulse. Police unions have been known to demand changes in arrest policies and weapons issuance, though it is vital that decisions affecting the citizenry and its everyday liberties be reserved for representatives answerable to the voters and courts.

In 1937 Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously warned against government unionism, much as Dwight Eisenhower was later to warn against the military-industrial complex. In the decades since then, public unionism has been on an extraordinary roll: states have steadily enacted laws more favorable to the unions, to the point where they have come to see such legal boons as a permanent entitlement (“how dare they take away our rights!”). But voters and taxpayers have their rights too—and among them is to back away from an ill-chosen path.

Incidentally, before the debate, the law school audience was asked to register its opinion of S.B. 5, and opposed the reforms by a margin of 27-76 with 27 undecided. Afterward, the vote was 34-82 with 10 still undecided.