Workers stage protests of Ohio union rights bill

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Protests over collective bargaining in Ohio expanded Saturday to include private sector unions and environmentalists, while Republicans considering changes to the bill said opponents put forth no ideas for improving the measure.

A crowd of several thousand that rallied at the Statehouse was peppered with signs for United Steel Workers, the Sierra Club, and other groups beyond public employee unions as state and national labor and Democratic groups sought to turn up the heat against Senate Bill 5.

GOP Senate leaders were working on additional changes to the bill to satisfy enough of their members to get the bill out of committee Tuesday and through a successful floor vote that could come as early as Thursday.

Senate President Tom Niehaus accused Senate Democrats of abandoning the legislative process. They announced Friday they would submit no amendments to the bill because they want it scrapped.

"As I sat down today to review the amendments submitted by Friday's deadline, I expected to see their constructive ideas on how to address the concerns they've expressed, but they refused to submit a single change," Niehaus said in a statement. "Much like their counterparts in Wisconsin, they apparently would rather grandstand in defense of the status quo."

Diane Boeckman, 60, a retired child care provider from Wapakoneta, said she was at the Statehouse rally because she believes rights for unions are good for everyone.

"They're just eating people up, chewing 'em up and spitting 'em out," she said, amid a crowd of banging drums, tooting horns and cheers. "People have a right to have a decent life, and then to be able to live when they retire."

Lucinda McCloud, a steelworker at Ball Metal Container in Columbus, said she attended in solidarity with those in public unions.

"It hasn't affected us yet, but it will," she said.

Sierra Club organizer Teresa McHugh said the group sees union and environmental rights as intertwined, pointing to the BP oil spill as an incident where a safer work environment also would have benefited the environment.

"It's the same forces that are trying to undercut the rights of workers and to undercut the rights of ordinary people to live in a healthy environment," she said.

Bob White, a prison guard from Mansfield, said he can't sleep at night worrying about what would happen to his life under Senate Bill 5.

The bill appeared suddenly on Feb. 1, shortly after Republicans recaptured the Ohio Legislature and the governor's office. Its sponsor, GOP state Sen. Shannon Jones of Springboro, said she had been working on it for a year. It was initially aimed at abolishing most collective bargaining rights, but a compromise announced last week would allow unions to negotiate on wages only and add a prohibition on public-employee strikes.

"We have no rights," White said. "They say, oh, you can negotiate wages, but it's like you asking your Dad for an allowance. All he has to do is say no. We have no recourse: You can't mediate it, you can't arbitrate it. What am I going to do? Tell my home mortgage, hey, I took this big cut, so you've got to? It's devastating."

Republican Gov. John Kasich wants the bill to pass, and he may support even more dramatic union limits in his upcoming budget.

He says he is not anti-union but that Ohio needs a shake-up at every level to address a looming budget gap of $8 billion, or about 16 percent of total spending, and to bring the ailing manufacturing state back to life.

With the help of legislative Republicans, Kasich's administration already has turned over Ohio's economic development functions to a semi-private, nonprofit board of CEOs, and he has said selling the Ohio Turnpike, privatizing liquor sales, and consolidating agencies are all on the table.

Referencing efforts by President Barack Obama's Organizing for America to stage Saturday collective bargaining rallies in all 50 states, Kasich said the president shouldn't insert himself.

"We should let us, the Legislature, the members there, we should be running Ohio," he said while speaking on Fox News, where he is a former commentator.

His remarks came Friday afternoon, after new findings by the state Office of Collective Bargaining that were reported in Saturday's edition of The Columbus Dispatch.

The office estimated the bill's union limits could have saved state government an estimated $217 million and local governments another $1.1 billion in 2010, the newspaper reported. Those calculations, however, took into account savings from scrapping union-negotiated wage agreements that the Senate is prepared to allow.

At a rally early Saturday with several hundred people in the working-class city of Lancaster, southeast of Columbus, Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters vice president K.J. Watts said union protections help cities like Lancaster in ways that are often forgotten.

Significant numbers of Lancaster firefighters volunteer to teach reading in the public schools, they adopt needy town residents at Christmas time, and they support local sports leagues, he said. He said their last contract saved the city $1 million.

Judy Schechter, 65, a retired suburban Cincinnati teacher, said union protections helped her mother and father reach the middle class.

"All the rights that my parents' generation fought for are being taken away," she said. "They fought with everything in their being to get the right to negotiate, to get the right to have a say - and everything's being reversed now."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)