Ohio governor, GOP leaders stage union law meeting

August 19, 2011 - 4:55 PM
Ohio Union Fight

Gov. John Kasich, center, speaks in the ceremonial governors office in the Ohio Statehouse Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio Gov. John Kasich and top Republican lawmakers say they're offering to weaken a new law limiting collective bargaining in an attempt to keep a repeal effort off the November ballot. (AP photo/Columbus Dispatch, Eric Albrecht)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Union leaders passed on meeting with Ohio Gov. John Kasich Friday to discuss a possible compromise over the state's new collective bargaining law, rebuffing an effort intended to remove a question from the November ballot asking voters to repeal it.

Kasich and fellow Republicans planted themselves alongside an empty table bearing placards for major unions, including the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employess, and the Ohio Education Association.

Though no labor leaders showed Friday — a pro-union group supporting a repeal has already said the law must be rescinded before any compromise negotiations can happen — media outlets from across the state crowded into a nearby hallway to see what would happen.

Democratic state Rep. Tracy Heard called it "a false flag of truce."

Kasich, House Speaker William Batchelder and Senate President Tom Niehaus say their goal in putting unions on the spot was to avoid a costly and potentially damaging ballot fight this fall.

When no one showed up, Batchelder said, "This was a complete abdication of moral responsibility on their part."

The measure prohibits public employee strikes, links teacher pay to performance, and limits the bargaining abilities of 350,000 unionized public employees. Opponents scored a 24-point lead among voters in a July Quinnipiac University poll on the issue, and some estimate the price tag of the November fight could reach tens of millions of dollars.

A.J. Stokes, director of the We Are Ohio campaign opposing the law, says "a fresh start" is needed to show good faith after the way the legislation was passed this spring as thousands of angry protesters flooded the Statehouse.

Niehaus said the call for repeal was an ultimatum, not a negotiation. He said repealing the measure would leave its supporters with no negotiation leverage.

Working through emissaries, Kasich had tested the waters for a compromise in June without success. The bill's sponsor, Republican state Sen. Shannon Jones, said this week she was unaware that effort had taken place.

The goal was to head off the ballot issue before petition signatures were filed, said Curt Steiner, the Republican consultant who arranged the meetings. He said the idea was to identify elements of the bill that were opposed by labor that Republicans were willing to concede and repealing them in the state budget bill.

"The value of that time frame was that there was legislation moving, and it was when the Legislature would be in town," Steiner said. "So that was the hope among some was that something might be resolved."

Kasich is clearly frustrated and seeking to tease out vulnerabilities in the vast labor-heavy coalition opposing the bill — which includes interests as diverse as public school teachers, state environmental scientists, police officers and garbage collectors.

He accused out-of-state union leaders of "selling their membership down the river," but signaled his continued willingness to talk about a deal.

"I do believe there are people as part of that coalition that would like to sit and talk with us," he said. "If somebody wants to sneak in in the dead of night or if they want to just give me a phone call or if they want to start talking, we're open to it."

Kasich and his allies used labor's absence from the table Friday to paint the unions as stubborn and uncooperative for a second time — a theme that will certainly show up in the fall campaign.

"Woody Allen said, 'Ninety percent of life is just showing up,'" Kasich said after an hour had passed. "Well, they obviously flunked that test today."

We Are Ohio questioned his sincerity, recounting a series of events it characterized as "political tricks" that surrounded the passage of the collective bargaining bill.

For example, the group pointed out that the GOP-controlled Legislature removed legislative members who opposed the bill from committee appointments; locked the Ohio Statehouse when throngs of protesters were gathered; and declined to allow all those who showed up to testify.

Jason Mauk, a spokesman Building a Better Ohio, a campaign supporting the new law, said the union leaders' absence Friday shows they "never had any intention of negotiating, either before, during or after the legislative process."

"They've made their choice," Mauk said. "The voters can now decide whether they want to keep the failed policies of the past or move forward with some very reasonable reforms to lead our state in a new direction."

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Associated Press Writer Andy Brownfield contributed to this report.