- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 9, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Labor unions are celebrating one of their biggest victories in decades after turning back an Ohio law that curbed collective bargaining rights for the state’s public workers. The vote showed that unions are still a potent political force that can’t be ignored.

The question for many is whether to interpret Tuesday’s Ohio referendum as simply a rejection of Republican overreach in a heavily unionized state or more broadly as a barometer of a battleground state that could resonate with voters nationwide.

Union leaders say they hope it brings about a resurgence for a labor movement long in decline and sends a strong message to other states where lawmakers are thinking about restricting union rights. But they also want to use the outcome as a spark to help re-elect President Obama and put more Democrats in office next year.

“I think the outcome is an absolute momentum-shifting victory for the labor movement,” said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters.

If unions succeed next year in recalling Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a top target after he pushed through similar legislation limiting union rights in his state, Mr. Schaitberger predicted “tremendous impact across the country.”

Marchyco Harrell (right), a teacher in the Lorain (Ohio) City Schools, and Verlene DeWitt, a teacher in the Westlake (Ohio) City Schools, listen to speakers at a rally co-sponsored by the Cleveland Teachers Union and We Are Ohio in Cleveland on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
Marchyco Harrell (right), a teacher in the Lorain (Ohio) City Schools, and ... more >

“Now you’re talking about having significant impact in the 2012 election cycle for many politicians and putting two battleground states in strong play for our candidates,” he said.

By a nearly 2-1 margin, Ohio voters repealed a new law that would have severely limited the bargaining rights of more than 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other state employees.

The law signed in late March by Republican Gov. John Kasich would have banned public employee strikes, scrapped binding arbitration, and denied public workers the ability to negotiate pensions and health care benefits.

Mr. Kasich earlier said the law would help hold down taxes and make the state more appealing to business. We Are Ohio, the largely union-funded opponent coalition, painted the issue as a threat to public safety and middle-class workers, spending millions of dollars on TV ads filled with images of firefighters, police officers, teachers and nurses.

“It’s a huge victory. It can’t be underestimated,” said Doug Schoen, a Democratic strategist who worked for President Bill Clinton. “But unions will try to read it broadly, and I don’t think it is.”

Mr. Schoen said unions would characterize the win as “a resurgence of the union movement, the resurgence of the left and the revitalization of the Democratic Party. I think it’s a repudiation of efforts to get rid of collective bargaining — no more, no less.”

But some national Democrats weren’t shy about trying to link the result in Ohio to next year’s presidential race. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democratic National Committee chairwoman, released a statement praising unions “for overcoming the likes of Mitt Romney and the millions of dollars in tea party and special interest money which poured into Ohio to prop up this misguided effort and the unpopular governor who pursued it.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney issued a statement saying Mr. Obama “congratulates the people of Ohio for standing up for workers” to defeat the measure.

Mr. Obama faces the challenge of appeasing his party’s traditional base, which includes unions, while at the same time pulling in moderates and independents to win re-election.

Mr. Kasich, meanwhile, said Tuesday that he respected the voters’ decision and would spend time reflecting on the result. Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine criticized Democrats for not offering an alternative plan to deal with revenue shortfalls.

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