It would be difficult to find a person who isn’t at least somewhat familiar with the battle which has taken place in the Wisconsin legislature over the last month or two surrounding public collective bargaining rights.  After all, when critical issues like retirement and health care for employees in nearly every corner of the state are debated, tens of thousands of people jam a state capitol building to protest, and lawmakers actually physically hide out-of-state from their own constituents, it tends to make news.

Not surprisingly, while that dispute is now in front of the judiciary in Wisconsin, the legislatures of several other states – undoubtedly bolstered with Republican leadership after last year’s mid-term elections – have taken up a similar fight to limit the rights of public employees in their states.  Admittedly not as volatile as the dispute which has gone on in Wisconsin, similarly serious efforts to curtail certain collective bargaining rights for public employees (including teachers) have been taken up in Illinois, New Jersey, and Indiana, among other states.

Now, Ohio has gotten into the mix, weighing further on the perception and calculus of whether unions in the public sector really have a long-term shelf life, and not just in the era of belt-tightening at the state budgetary level, but also in consideration of whether they have a future in the American workplace at all.

There have been hearings in Ohio for weeks where various limits on the collective bargaining rights of public employees have been discussed, but it was only a few days ago when an actual bill was passed by both sides of its legislature and signed by its governor, John Kasich.  The big differences between the law that passed in Ohio and the law that recently passed in Wisconsin, however, are twofold.

First, the law in Ohio covers the state’s police officers and firefighters.  While that makes the law tougher on one hand, it obviously has raised a great deal of concern about public safety on the other.  Second, the measure – which permits negotiation of wages and working conditions, but not health or pension benefits – is subject to a vote of all the state’s citizens in November if the Democrats in the legislature can secure 230,000 signatures on supporting petitions within the next ninety (90) days.  That’s something they will obviously try to do.

While only time will tell whether everyone in Ohio will have a chance to profess their individual feelings by voting on the success or failure of such a measure in the fall, it’s undeniable that the issue of collective bargaining rights for public employees is polarizing more and more states by the month, and now that the debate has reached Ohio, it’s obviously hitting even closer to home.  That said, similar measures are probably unlikely to reach our other neighboring jurisdictions, since Pennsylvania’s new governor, Tom Corbett, hasn’t taken as polarizing a stance towards public employees, and public sector unions have a strong history there.  In West Virginia, public employees already aren’t entitled to collective bargaining rights as a matter of state law in the first place, so there’s nothing to further limit in that regard.

 Back in Ohio, though, the battle rages on.  Stay tuned.

Mario Bordogna represents clients in all aspects of labor and employment law in state and federal courts. Mr. Bordogna concentrates his practice in the areas of employment litigation, employment discrimination, workers’ compensation, employment counseling, and labor–management relations.
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