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Ohio Revisits 'Right to Work' With More Support From a More Republican Legistlature

photo of campaign button opposing Senate Bill 5
Campaign button opposing Senate Bill 5, a collective bargaining reform bill passed in 2011

In each of the last two legislative sessions, at least one Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill that would change the rules for union dues and membership for public employees. Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler reports on the latest so-called “right to work” effort, and on its chances of passing this time.


The first Republican to drop a right-to-work bill this session is Rep. John Becker, a Cincinnati-area Republican whose proposal would allow public sector employees to opt out of union membership. State law doesn’t require them to join unions now., though they pay a "fair-share" fee for the benefits they get from a unionized workplace.

Becker says his bill answers the argument about “freeloaders” by allowing unions to decline to represent workers who don’t join.

Becker is hoping this third round for a so-called “right-to-work” bill in Ohio goes further than the other two – since things have changed in and around Ohio in the last few years.

“With the exception of Pennsylvania, every state is a right to work state. And then Missouri also became right to work. So that’s 28 states now in the union,” Becker said. “So it’s clearly trending now in that direction and Ohio is being left behind.”

What's different this time
Becker says this bill is markedly different from Senate Bill 5, the controversial collective bargaining overhaul that  passed in 2011. It covered all public employees, including police and firefighters. After angry protests at the Statehouse,voters overturned it.

Supporters of the new effort maintain that people have higher standards of living in right-to-work states, which they also say have lower unemployment rates. And for them, this seems like the right time. Republicans picked up another seat in the state House and the Senate this fall, so the veto-proof majorities that existed in both chambers are even stronger now. 

But legislative leaders seem cool to the idea. Becker’s bill has 12 cosponsors, but hasn’t been assigned to a committee. Rep. Ryan Smith (R-Bidwell) chairs the House Finance Committee. He wasn’t in office when S.B. 5 came through.

“This one comes up every General Assembly,” Smith says. “I have no idea – we haven’t sat down and mapped out a game plan on it or anything like that. But it’s something that our members, a certain amount of them, certainly care deeply about, along with the ‘heartbeat bill’ and other issues that are controversial.”

To say “right-tp-work” is controversial is an understatement. Sen. Scott Oelslager, a Stark County Republican, chairs the Senate Finance Committee and was part of the close vote on S.B.5.

“I voted against it, and the people of Ohio, I think, have spoken very clearly how they feel on that particular issue,” Oelslager said.

The opposition
But should it go forward, the opposition is ready for the fight. Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat from the union-heavy Mahoning Valley, is considering a run for governor in 2018, and he said this issue would face broad rejection from voters.

“Not only is it about union people, but it’s about friends and neighbors that understand the ramifications and wage problems that Ohioans will face if something like that was to pass.”

House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn, a Dayton Democrat, says studies show wages are lower and workplace injuries and deaths are higher in right to work states. So he says if Republicans want to raise this issue – bring it on. “If they want to drag that out to the public discourse and let people actually get to know what that kind of stuff is, I think the ramifications politically are probably bad,” Strahorn said.

In 2011, unions led the passionate fight to repeal S.B 5, and 61 percent of voters agreed.

Last year, President Trump won Ohio by more than 8 points. Pierrette Talley is the secretary-treasurer of the Ohio AFL-CIO. She admits that union households were a reason for Trump’s victory in Ohio, but says that was largely because of trade issues. And she warns that state lawmakers shouldn’t be emboldened by Trump’s win.

“That doesn’t mean that they don’t want their unions to be vibrant in the state of Ohio,” Talley said. “So we would urge this legislature to back down on ‘right to work’ in the state of Ohio.”

Chance for success
Rep. John Becker isn’t holding out a lot of hope for his bill. But if it does pass, he isn’t concerned about it going the ballot. He says its time has come – that a true right-to-work measure hasn’t been before voters since 1958.

Karen is a lifelong Ohioan who has served as news director at WCBE-FM, assignment editor/overnight anchor at WBNS-TV, and afternoon drive anchor/assignment editor in WTAM-AM in Cleveland. In addition to her daily reporting for Ohio’s public radio stations, she’s reported for NPR, the BBC, ABC Radio News and other news outlets. She hosts and produces the Statehouse News Bureau’s weekly TV show “The State of Ohio”, which airs on PBS stations statewide. She’s also a frequent guest on WOSU TV’s “Columbus on the Record”, a regular panelist on “The Sound of Ideas” on ideastream in Cleveland, appeared on the inaugural edition of “Face the State” on WBNS-TV and occasionally reports for “PBS Newshour”. She’s often called to moderate debates, including the Columbus Metropolitan Club’s Issue 3/legal marijuana debate and its pre-primary mayoral debate, and the City Club of Cleveland’s US Senate debate in 2012.