COLUMBUS, Ohio — Outcry over collective bargaining proposals in Ohio threatened to overshadow Republican Gov. John Kasich's first State of the State speech as Democrats and union groups worked to mobilize thousands more protesters to the Statehouse.
The speech falls on Tuesday, the day a bill limiting negotiating rights for 350,000 police, firefighters, teachers and other public workers begins its trip through the Ohio House. The bill cleared the state Senate last week.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees set the stage for Tuesday's protests with a "State of the Worker" event Monday.
Tim Roberts, a corrections officer at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio, west of Columbus, said he's concerned about losing collective bargaining rights as Kasich prepares to make deep cuts to the state budget to address an estimated $8 billion budget gap.
"We live paycheck to paycheck," said Roberts, a father of four.
The AFL-CIO planned a protest at the Statehouse at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, just ahead of Kasich's noon speech. Some estimates for the event went as high as 25,000 people; demonstrations so far over the proposals have topped out around 8,500.
Under the bill, unionized public workers in Ohio could negotiate wages, hours and certain work conditions, but not health care or pension benefits. The measure would do away with automatic pay raises and base future wage increases on merit. It also would ban strikes by public workers and establish penalties for those who do participate in walkouts.
House Democratic Leader Armond Budish, of Beachwood near Cleveland, conceded Monday that his party has few weapons to use against the legislation. They control just 40 of 99 seats in the Ohio House.
"We'll do the only thing we can do," he said. "We'll fight like hell."
Budish's comments came as he unveiled what House Democrats are calling their "Compact with the Middle Class." As part of their legislative priorities, they pledged to push back against the collective bargaining legislation.
Budish said his caucus was discussing whether to offer amendments to the bill, but he said he did not know what would be proposed.
"Clearly we have a budget problem," he said. "But the idea of balancing the budget on the backs of the middle class is not acceptable."
A coalition of tea party groups, led by the national group FreedomWorks, was mobilizing its own forces on Monday to show support for Kasich and GOP lawmakers who are cracking down on unions.
"A lot of the union agitation you see out there, this is the final confrontation about the unchecked power they've built up over the years," spokesman Adam Brandon said. "You see these union guys protesting, and now for the first time ever when the unions show up to do their business, you've got actual taxpayer groups, tea party groups ready to stand up for our rights, as well."
More than two dozen tea party groups around Ohio planned to deliver letters to their state lawmakers on Tuesday in favor of collective bargaining restrictions, he said. FreedomWorks also gave Kasich its Legislative Entrepreneur Award on Monday "for his dedication to restore economic competition in Ohio, rein in spending and shrink a bloated state budget."
Brandon said the group is turning out to show support for Ohio Republicans they helped put in office last fall, when Democrat Ted Strickland lost the governor's office and the GOP took back control of every statewide office and both legislative chambers.
"You work your keisters off during election cycles and then, once they get elected, you expect them to be bold," he said. "You can't wrestle down our budget problems without bold, bold actions."
Bill Melvin, a union maintenance worker for the state, said his pay was cut more than in half when he moved from the private to the public sector four months ago. He said he took an $18-an-hour pay cut when he switched jobs because of a decline in construction in the area.
"What I don't understand is how I've become an entitled person," Melvin said. "I pay into my pension, I pay into the health source, and I barely make $15 an hour. And when you add in the 10 furlough days, I'm barely making $14 an hour and I'm a skilled laborer."
Asked what he anticipates in the State of the State address that will apply to him, Melvin said: "'Get out of the way' is basically what he's going to tell me – tell ME. Because I'm opposed to this, so I guess I'm the one he's going to run over.
"And quite frankly, I don't have anything to lose. Like I said, I'm barely making it now. So I anticipate him telling me to basically suck it up and move on. That's what I anticipate," he said.
In an e-mail to supporters on Monday, the Kasich Taylor for Ohio Team indicated something different.
"Governor Kasich is expected to speak about the successes and positive steps his administration and the legislature have taken in the first two months and their continued efforts to create jobs in Ohio," the e-mail said.