Collective-Bargaining Battles Remain a Hot Topic in Midwest

BY David Coles  March 31, 2011 at 4:11 PM EDT

After weeks of emotionally charged rallies and bitter legislative disputes, the battles over public employees’ collective-bargaining rights remain hot in several Midwestern states.

But the arenas where those battles will play out are shifting.

On Thursday, Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich vowed to sign a bill limiting the rights to bargain and to strike for 350,000 teachers and government workers. The bill was approved in contentious Wednesday sessions by the GOP-led state House and Senate, following weeks of pro-labor opposition.

Union leaders and Democrats in the state now promise to take the issue to the public, in a referendum on the November ballot. They have 90 days to gather signatures to place it on the ballot. By passing and signing the bill before April 8, Republicans guaranteed that that referendum would occur in the 2011 election, not in 2012, a presidential year, when presumably more of the Democratic faithful might turn out.

Meanwhile in Wisconsin, a top aide to Republican Gov. Scott Walker said his administration would comply with a court order issued earlier Thursday demanding it stop preparations to implement a law restricting public worker collective bargaining.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi’s ruling said that the law had not taken effect, despite a state agency having posted it on the Internet — a measure seen as a final step in putting the law in place. It was Sumi’s second ruling on the matter in a matter of days, and came after the Walker administration ignored an earlier restraining order to halt work on the law while the court considered a lawsuit challenging its legitimacy.

Opponents of the law charge that it was improperly passed by Republicans in the absence of Democrats, who had fled the state in a strategic maneuver to deny the GOP a quorum in the Legislature. The lawsuit claims that the manner in which the vote was held violated the state’s “open-meeting” rule.

Republicans and their supporters in several states argue that collective-bargaining rights hamstring efforts to rein in state and municipal spending and balance budgets at a time when revenues are down and demand for services is up. Democrats and unions call the efforts a strategy to deny workers a voice in the workplace.

Our colleague Micheline Maynard, senior editor of “Changing Gears,” a public media project about the industrial Midwest, recently wrote this Q&A for a primer on the subject. There’s an excerpt below and you can read the entire post here.

Q: Why is there such a focus on collective-bargaining rights for public employees?

A: Budget crises and politics. Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin all face large budget deficits, and their new Republican governors have laid out proposals that include wide-ranging cuts. In Wisconsin and Ohio, Gov. Scott Walker and Gov. John Kasich campaigned on promises to limit or eliminate collective bargaining rights for public employees, saying that would give the state and its communities the greatest flexibility to cut costs.

Unions, on the other hand, have seen these efforts as a matter of political philosophy rather than cost-saving measures. They say these politicians have used unions as a scapegoat for deeper problems caused by the weak economy.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder has avoided calling for the elimination of public employee collective bargaining rights, although he has proposed steep spending cuts in his state budget proposal. But, he still signed a law affecting some public employees.

Photo of Ohio protest courtesy Flickr Creative Commons/Ohio AFL-CIO