Ohio: Collective Bargaining Union Protesters Clash at Statehouse with Tea Party Supporter of anti-Union Bill
Vociferous throngs attend hearings on Senate Bill 5
Thursday, February 17, 2011
By Jim Siegel
The Columbus Dispatch
JONATHAN QUILTER | DISPATCH Photos
Supporters of Senate Bill 5 rallied today outside the Statehouse . . .
. . . as the bill’s opponents rallied inside.
More than 3,000 enthusiastic supporters and opponents of the Senates proposed collective-bargaining overhaul enveloped the Statehouse this morning with cheers of kill the bill and yes on 5, prior to the latest hearing on Senate Bill 5.
The spacious Statehouse atrium was packed mostly with public union workers outraged at efforts to end collective bargaining for state workers and significantly weaken the ability for local workers to bargain for their pay, benefits and working conditions.
Unions made a strong showing for the bill’s first two hearings, and they were joined today by more than 200 red-shirt clad tea party activists pushing for the bill’s passage. The mix verbally clashed in the Statehouse rotunda, where each side did its best to drown out the other.
Meanwhile, the atrium had the feel of a rock concert or an Ohio State football game, as union supporters cheered loudly when Senate sergeants-at-arms led their leaders across the balcony and into the hearing room.
More than 50 witnesses are scheduled to testify today. The first dozen or so will be supporters, and then opponents, including police, firefighters and Ohio Highway Patrol troopers’ union leaders.
"This is a true test of democracy," said Sen. Kevin Bacon, chairman of the committee hearing the bill, during his opening comments.
The bill is not an attack on the middle class, public workers or jobs, Mike Wilson, head of the Cincinnati Tea Party, told a crowd gathered outside the Statehouse. "This bill is about math. Government has grown bigger than our taxpayers’ ability to support it."
Rick Barry, a tea party member from Akron, said of public unions: "Their benefits are so much better than mine and their pay is so much better than mine, but they are still crying."
Wearing stickers that read "Taxpayer defender" and holding signs including those that read, "We’re broke. Support SB 5," tea party activists said they wanted to show lawmakers that while they cannot compete with union numbers, there is support for changing collective-bargaining laws.
The group is transitioning from holding politicians accountable to showing support for their actions, said Tom Zawistowski, executive director of he Portage County Tea Party. "We want them to know that if they do it, we will work to keep them in office."
He added: "We don’t have any more money. We have to make some hard decisions."
The Highway Patrol did not report any incidents during the morning, though some women standing in the atrium were heard saying they were moving out because things were getting heated.
Union leaders have characterized Senate Bill 5 as an attack on middle-class workers who need the ability to bargain in order to maintain a fair livelihood and uphold standards for safety and education. They also argue that Ohio’s economic downturn, combined with tax cuts phased in over the past six years, are to blame for the state’s troubling budget situation, not them.
Mark Sanders, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters, said a review of the law may be justified, and he does not object to attempts to make bargaining more transparent.
"It is our fear that his legislation will destroy 27 years of public safety labor peace," he said. "Collective bargaining has been the only means for firefighters to gain safety standards."
Jay McDonald, president of the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, stressed that police departments, including his own in Marion, have made concessions in recent days and years to help deal with declining budgets.
"Collective bargaining and our rights to binding arbitration are fundamental," he said. "We strongly believe the state made a covenant to police in 1983 when the right to strike was eliminated."
McDonald spoke of the work he and his family members have done as police officers, saying they earned their wages. He also questioned how a merit-based system could apply to police officers, who, in part, are "paid to run toward gunfire."
McDonald also couldn’t pass up the chance to bring up the controversy over Gov. John Kasich’s recent criticism of a Columbus police officer. "Occasionally we enforce a traffic law, and somebody might call a police officer an idiot."
Neither McDonald nor Sanders faced much tough questioning from the committee.
The committee also heard from Kristen Treadway, director of human resources for the city of Gahanna, who was critical of recent binding arbitration the city went through with one of its safety forces unions. She said "we have extreme concerns with the collective bargaining process."
Treadway talked of the struggle to get pay freezes and changes to health insurance as city tax revenue declined 13 percent from 2007 to 2009.
"The cost of bargaining and the cost of continual wage and benefit increases when the city is not growing are not sustainable," she said.
Jeff Berding, a Cincinnati councilman since 2005, urged lawmakers to "make this insanity stop."
He said Cincinnati’s personnel costs are growing 18 percent annually. The city’s contract with police gives officers an average of $87 an hour for working holidays and can let workers retire with six-figure sums for unused leave, totaling $93 million.
Over the years, Berding said, the collective bargaining law has tilted in favor of the unions. He said once more generous benefits or work conditions go into a contract, "they never come out."
"People are hurting and they are outraged to see these kinds of abuses of their hard-earned tax dollars," Berding said. He added, "I must share with you my disappointment to realize that the union leaders and their members prioritize pay and benefits above averting layoffs."
Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, told Berding that collective bargaining was implemented to avoid the numerous public worker strikes that were occurring, and it has worked. While things need refining, "clearly this is not a system that is as broken as the system that preceded it."
Addressing a prior witness who also referred to Cincinnati’s union contracts, Sen. Eric Kearney, D-Cincinnati, noted that "you make it sound like it just happens miraculously. These things are bargained for. No one was forced to make these agreements."