John Kasich vs. Public Unions
A first-term Ohio governor follows in the footsteps of Scott Walker.


Robert Costa

With its Greek-style protests, Wisconsin figures prominently in the war between Republicans and public-sector unions. But another Rust Belt battle is brewing in Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich’s collective-bargaining reforms are being challenged at the polls.

Senate Bill 5, the sweeping legislation Kasich spearheaded, faces an uncertain future. A year-long referendum effort by Democrats and labor forces has put the issue on the ballot. On November 8, voters will have final say. “It’s just important for us to win, period,” says Kasich, a first-term Republican.

Kasich’s reforms, like Gov. Scott Walker’s in Wisconsin, have rattled government workers, who for decades have enjoyed cushy retirement and health-care benefits. Senate Bill 5 “is all about fairness,” asking state employees to contribute 10 percent of their salaries toward their guaranteed pensions and pay 15 percent of their health-care costs, Kasich says.

The bill also outlaws public-sector strikes, bans binding arbitration, and gives cities and school boards bargaining flexibility. Schoolteachers will be given merit pay, not guaranteed automatic pay increases. Ohio’s 360,000 government workers, like their peers in Wisconsin, have revolted. Thousands of them stormed the capitol when the legislation was passed by the GOP-controlled legislature in March — a sea of bright union T-shirts.

Those winter rallies were only the beginning. Once Kasich signed the bill, progressives pounced. Activists canvassed the state, petitioning for repeal. We Are Ohio, a potpourri of lefty-types, led the months-long campaign. According to state law, if 230,000 signatures were collected and certified by the secretary of state, a referendum would be triggered. By mid-July, over 1.3 million Ohioans had signed. Senate Bill 5 was suspended. And “Issue 2,” a question of whether to keep the legislation, was added to the ballot.

Senate Bill 5’s midsummer stall was a blow to Kasich. His approval rating at the time, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, sunk to 35 percent. Still, Kasich was buoyed that same month by the passage of his budget, which closed the state’s $8 billion budget gap without raising taxes. But Kasich knew that beyond the budget, his entire economic agenda remained jeopardized by “Issue 2.”And with Quinnipiac’s July survey showing 56 percent of Ohioans favoring repeal, disaster loomed.

A month later, Kasich threw a curveball to the unions, which have long portrayed him as the bogeyman of Ohio politics. In a press conference at the capitol, he softened his approach and invited union leaders to “come to the table” and “talk” about potential “ways to reach an agreement.” Sensing Kasich’s political vulnerability, union brass ignored the offer, telling Republicans almost immediately that full repeal of Senate Bill 5 would be a prerequisite to any negotiations. Kasich, undeterred, decided to make his case across the state.

If voters toss Kasich’s legislation, the consequences will be more than political. Kasich’s budget includes major cuts, from education to funds for local municipalities. As he explains it, Senate Bill 5 was not a union-busting bill, but an attempt to give school boards and community officials the ability to adapt their budgets, not only to the recession, but to diminished state dollars. If the bill is repealed, he worries that local officials won’t be well-equipped to deal with the new budget directives from Columbus.

“We want to give local communities the ability to manage their costs,” Kasich says. “We’re a high-tax state. We brought the income tax down. But local communities still have high taxes.” Addressing the fiscal reality early, he says, was his aim. “You can’t wait for somebody else to fix it.” Ohio’s labor policy, his allies point out, was last revamped by Democrats in 1983 and demands an update.

As he makes his case for Senate Bill 5 at town-hall meetings, Kasich reiterates this point, telling Ohioans that the legislation is one facet of his growth agenda. Rejecting it, after GOP lawmakers passed it as the keystone of a broader platform, would force businesses to reconsider whether Ohio is a “21st-century state” that’s eager to attract jobs, he says. He emphasizes, over and over, that if local governments are unable to craft conservative budgets, jobs will be lost as officials cut personnel, often recent hires, in order to pay for bank-breaking public pensions.