Governor John Kasich has announced his intention to push for a radical retrenchment of Ohio’s Public Employee Bargaining Law, Ohio Revised Code Chapter 4117.  Passed in 1983 during the first year of Governor Richard Celeste’s term, the bill gave unions representing state employees the right to bargain with the state, allowed unions representing state and local governments, including school districts, the right to bargain and gave the right to strike to non-safety unions.  Safety unions gained the right to arbitration (called “conciliation” under the Act) but not the right to strike. 

In the years since its passage, the Act has predictably resulted in a shift of governmental funding towards wages and benefits.  The dispute resolution processes in the Act have removed key fiscal decisions from the control of elected officials and placed them in the hands of private arbitrators, many of whom have primary locations outside of Ohio and certainly outside the boundaries of local governments.  Also unsurprisingly, the incidence of strikes by public sector unions has dropped.

All of these effects were predictable [and were predicted–see Bumpass & Ashmus, Public Sector Bargaining in a Democracy—An Assessment of the Ohio Public Employee Collective Bargaining Law, 33 Cleveland St. L. Rev. 593 (1984-85)], but there was little or no pressure, except from local officials, to do much about them.  The November 2010 elections, however, brought strong Republican majorities to both houses of the General Assembly along with a Republican Governor.  Coupled with a serious fiscal crisis for the state and many of its political subdivisions, there is a significant chance that the Act will be amended along the lines proposed by Gov. Kasich. 

While a detailed analysis of the potential changes is beyond the scope of this entry, the current bill (Sub. S. B. No. 5—Jones) would eliminate mandatory bargaining rights for state employees, remove many subjects (class size, for example) from the permissible scope of bargaining, remove safety supervisors from unions, outlaw strikes and eliminate mandatory arbitration of contract disputes.  Local government and school district employees would retain bargaining rights.  This would indeed be a major retrenchment of union power over Ohio’s public employee terms and conditions of employment.

An interesting element in the discussion is the extent to which the debate about public sector unionization’s adverse impact on state and local government operations is likely to fuel debate over unionization in the private sector, where at least one study (pdf) has shown that right-to-work states out-compete their mandatory union membership peers. There are already questions being asked at news conferences about the willingness of the Governor to support a Right to Work Law for Ohio.   Gov. Kasich has so far expressed his preference to see whether manufacturing sector unions will be a positive force in his attempts to recruit new businesses to Ohio.  The other shoe could well drop, though, if the unions seek to thwart the Governor’s ambitious development agenda.