Undaunted by the voters’ repeal earlier this month of the state’s restrictions on public-sector unions, some Ohio conservatives and tea partiers are refocusing their attention to amend the state constitution to make Ohio a right-to-work state.
Ohioans for Workplace Freedom is set to collect signatures for an amendment to allow each individual worker to decide whether he wants to join a union, essentially barring the “closed shop,” where employees at unionized workplaces have to pay dues even if they do not join the union.
While they acknowledge an uphill effort in collecting the 386,000 signatures needed to force a vote, right-to-work supporters say such a “workplace freedom” law would offer choice for state workers and open doors to job creation, putting the struggling state on a new path to prosperity.
“Politically, there is no other route. Legislators are far more concerned about political calculations” than about passing right-to-work laws, said Chris Littleton, who serves on Ohioans for Workforce Freedom’s ballot committee.
“The idea that just about any entity can force me to do something again my will as a condition of employment is very disheartening,” Mr. Littleton said, noting his group does not oppose union membership. “This idea of freedom of choice is so a part of the American DNA that it rallies everyone to this fight.”
On Nov. 8, Ohioans voted down a contentious law, signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich, that limited collective-bargaining rights for state employees. More than $30 million was spent in the fight to repeal Senate Bill 5. But in the same election, 66 percent also voted yes on Issue 3, a rejection of a central plank of President Obama’s health care law, saying they did not want to be forced to join a state health care system.
Right-to-work supporters said they see the overwhelming support on Issue 3 - which, like a right-to-work law, frames itself as preserving freedom of choice - as buoying their own cause.
But some in Ohio think the timing is not right, after a hard-fought election, to take up another contentious fight over labor rights. State voters last defeated a right-to-work law in 1958.
“We just finished a very divisive and contentious election, and Ohioans made it clear they want us to be more deliberate in our approach to major reform,” said Ohio Senate President Tom Niehaus, a Republican, in a statement, noting that job creation should be the state’s top priority.
Tim Burga, president of the AFL-CIO in Ohio, described the constitutional amendment effort as “an even more broad assault on workers’ rights” in the wake of the defeated collective-bargaining bill.
“Voters clearly rejected the misguided notion of taking away workers’ rights when they voted down Issue 2,” Mr. Burga said. “It is my hope that Gov. Kasich and Republican leaders in the legislature can provide some leadership to their party to stop these extreme initiatives and work for what Ohioans have clearly called for in terms of an economic recovery and creating jobs.”
Paul Kersey, director of labor policy at Michigan’s free market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said such right-to-work initiatives have sprung up around the Midwest as a result of the bleak job market. Because of the economy, many workers in heavily unionized states are reconsidering what their union is delivering for them, resulting in drops in union membership nationwide, especially in the private sector.
“There is now this sort of reassessment of the union movement,” he said. “This is part of a broader trend. Right-to-work is just an extension of that, and I’d be very surprised if it went away anytime soon. I would say this trend would not be reversed as long as the union ideology remains the way it is.”
• Andrea Billups can be reached at email@example.com.
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