Local union officials are sounding off on proposed changes to the state's collective bargaining laws that would weaken protection for organized government employees.
Debbie Bindas, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 8 representative, said the proposed legislation - Senate Bill 5 - treats public workers like they are not part of the community. Council 8 represents city, county, township and health care workers for the entire state of Ohio and is one of three AFSCME branches in the state.
"I think the Senate is barking up the wrong tree. I think there are more important issues in Ohio regarding the economy, and it's called unemployment," Bindas said.
Public employees make money that is fed back into the economy to support the private sector, she said. She questioned why public workers are being treated differently than private sector union workers.
It's also unfair to try to balance the budget at the expense of public workers, Bindas said.
"Only 9 percent of the state budget is for public employees. If every state worker was laid off, it would save $2 billion per year, but there still would be a $6 billion budget hole. Not to mention a severe lack of public services.
''Public employees touch every aspect of our life, from treating the water we use to make our morning coffee to inspecting the restaurants where we eat on the weekends," Bindas said.
The Republican-led Ohio Senate - with strong support from Gov. John Kasich - outlined plans Wednesday to overhaul the state's collective bargaining laws to weaken what they see as costly union clout.
Economic times are too hard, and the stakes too high, for Ohio taxpayers to continue to do business as usual, GOP Senate leaders said.
But union leaders jammed the Statehouse to cry foul, claiming the Republican agenda is to weaken decades of protection for organized government employees, a move they say would hurt middle-class communities.
Marc Titus, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 204, said he was among 300 firefighters from across the state who was in Columbus Wednesday when the bill was introduced. He said 15 firefighters from Trumbull County made the trip to express their opposition to the legislation.
Titus said there also were representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police, Ohio Education Association and AFSCME in Columbus on Wednesday to show their opposition.
"I am totally against it. It's 501 pages and I am still reading through it, but it is basically a union busting proposal that takes away the rights of public employees," Titus said.
He said he will release a statement from the IAFF Local 204 sometime in the next few days.
Warren Human Resoures Direcor Gary Cicero said he had not seen the legislation and could not comment. City Council on Wednesday approved three-year contracts with the city's two AFSCME unions and the firefighters union that include a wage freeze and five-year tier wage system for new hires.
Senate President Tom Niehaus argues that new limits must be placed on public unions to help state and local governments. But Niehaus, R-New Richmond, cautioned that by the time a final bill is agreed upon, it may not be as severe as union leaders fear.
With an $8 billion state budget gap forecast this year, cutbacks and hardship must be shared by Ohio's union workers, according to Kasich.
Republican leaders of the Ohio House and Senate, who must pass Kasich's first two-year budget by June 30, generally agree.
But spokesmen for the state's largest unions say public workers already gave up $100 million in health benefits and $250 million in pay to help balance the current budget, passed in July 2009, when Ted Strickland was governor. Union concessions included four weeks of unpaid furloughs - 80 hours each year - no pay raises, and the loss of five personal days.
Anticipating even tougher times in a Kasich administration, nearly all of the unions' campaign contributions went to Strickland before the Democrat's loss Nov. 2.
Political experts said Strickland's strong union support helped keep the election close. That's why, on Nov. 3, Kasich warned state teachers' and labor unions they should have been talking to him about their concerns. Kasich joked after his victory that school unions should take out newspaper ads apologizing for what they said about him during the campaign.
Nearly 1,000 union members, including police, firefighters, prison guards, teachers, and laborers, crowded the Statehouse atrium, hallways, and four hearing rooms to listen to details of legislation sponsored by Sen. Shannon Jones, a Republican who represents parts of Hamilton and Warren counties.
Outside, dozens of protesters carried signs urging legislators to vote against the bill.
The bill is a starting point for "gutting" laws protecting the rights of organized workers, according to Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga.
"This bill is a partisan assault on working families and does nothing but punish workers and hurt the middle class, plain and simple," Burga said.
The Ohio Education Association, which represents about 130,000 teachers, professors, and other school and college workers, is equally unnerved that Jones' bill could gain steam, as has anti-union legislation in a half-dozen other states led by new Republican governors.
Ohio's law allowing collective bargaining for state employees only dates back to the early 1980s, but the argument over whether or not public employees have the right to organize had been going on for decades before that.
The 1983 law gave state employees the right to organize and required the state to bargain with their unions. The arbitration system in the 1983 law was upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court six years later.