In the Ohio General Election on Tuesday, Ohioans voted by a margin of 61% to 39% to repeal Senate Bill 5. The highly-contentious legislation passed in Ohio last summer would have made sweeping changes to Ohio collective bargaining law applicable to workers in the public sector. (See our previous blog posts on Senate Bill 5 here and here.) Among the most significant provisions in S.B. 5 were a ban on strikes by all public sector workers, elimination of binding arbitration as the way to resolve bargaining disputes, mandated minimum employee contributions for medical insurance and pension benefits, and a prohibition of "fair share fee" union dues provisions in collective bargaining agreements.
S.B. 5 was seen by supporters as a necessary control on the public sector collective bargaining system in Ohio, which some claim has resulted in runaway wages and fringe benefits for public workers and has created an unsustainable financial burden on state and local governments. Supporters of S.B. 5 argued it was a necessary measure to avoid tax increases. Opponents of S.B. 5 argued that it was an attack on unions and an effort to eliminate any true collective bargaining in the public sector. Relying heavily on public support for police officers, fire fighters, and teachers, opponents of S.B. 5 marshaled substantial financial and other resources to achieve a sweeping victory in the election.
So, what is next? Supporters of S.B. 5 may return to the Legislature with a revised, scaled-back version of the Bill. Alternatively, some of the provisions of S.B. 5 might find their way into future budget bills which are not susceptible to referendum and repeal. There are also reports that efforts will be made to pass "right to work" legislation in Ohio applicable to public and private sector workplaces. Right to work laws make it illegal for a contract between a union and employer to require any employee to pay union dues or to be a member of or affiliated in any way with a union.
What will be the effect of the S.B. 5 referendum on organized labor and on public employers? Unions can draw from the election results a certain feeling of vindication. Unions may try to ride the wave of public support with more aggressive union organizing in both the public and private sectors. At a minimum, unions representing employees in the public sector are safe at least for now from those provisions of S.B. 5 which would have substantially reduced their influence and effectiveness at the bargaining table.
The initial reaction from public employers may be disappointment that much needed improvements to the public sector bargaining process did not take effect. But at the same time, the political melee that surrounded S.B. 5 brought substantial attention to the financial crisis that many public employers are facing. The election results do not change the fact that many public employers simply cannot continue to fund wage and benefits increases as they have done in the past. So expect public employers to take a strong stance at the bargaining table to control costs despite the fact that S.B. 5 was repealed.