COLUMBUS, Ohio — Labor stronghold Ohio assumed center stage Wednesday in the fight over collective bargaining rights for public workers as the state Legislature passed a bill that was in some ways tougher than that seen in Wisconsin and sent it to the governor.
Amid shouts and jeers in both chambers, the House passed a measure affecting 350,000 public workers on a 53-44 vote, and the Senate followed with a 17-16 vote of approval. Republican Gov. John Kasich will sign the bill by the end of the week.
Senate President Tom Niehaus threatened to clear the chamber ahead of final legislative action on the bill as pro-labor protesters shouted insults at senators and threatened to unseat them in the next election.
Chants of "Shame on you!" filled the elegant, high-ceilinged chambers where legislators are accustomed to hushed tones and self-imposed decorum.
Unlike Wisconsin's measure, the Ohio legislation would extend union restrictions to police officers and firefighters.
But the overall response by protesters in the Rust Belt state, despite its long union tradition among steel and auto workers, has paled in comparison to Wisconsin, where protests topped more than 70,000 people. Ohio's largest Statehouse demonstrations on the measure drew about 8,500 people.
That difference has been attributed to Madison's labor legacy and the proximity of the populous University of Wisconsin campus to the state capital.
Standing in the Ohio Statehouse Rotunda after the House vote Wednesday, union steelworker Curt Yarger said he saw the bill as "a preliminary attack on working people."
"I shouldn't have any disillusion that I'll be next in the private sector," said Yarger, 43, of Mansfield.
Leo Geiger, a Republican who works as a sewer inspector for the city of Dayton and didn't attend protests because he couldn't take the time off, said he's "deathly afraid that this is going to affect me, my family and the entire state of Ohio in an incredibly negative way."
Geiger, 34, called the bill and the way it has moved through the Legislature "completely un-American" and said he believes it has more to do with "political payback" than the budget.
"I find this to be loathsome," he said Wednesday night. "I find this to be disrespectful to Ohioans and disrespectful to the process of Democracy."
Democrats, including former Gov. Ted Strickland, and unions have vowed to mount a campaign to overturn the measure through a referendum in November.
On Wednesday, an estimated 700 people went to the Ohio Statehouse to hear the debate.
The Ohio measure affects safety workers, teachers, nurses and a host of other government personnel. It allows unions to negotiate wages but not health care, sick time or pension benefits. It gets rid of automatic pay increases, and replaces them with merit raises or performance pay. Workers would also be banned from striking.
Kasich has said his $55.5 billion, two-year state budget counts on unspecified savings from lifting union protections to fill an $8 billion hole. The first-term governor and his GOP colleagues argue the bill would help city officials and superintendents better control their costs at a time when they, too, are feeling budget woes.
Most Republican lawmakers promoted the bill as necessary to aid the state's ailing economy through cost savings and government flexibility in negotiations.
"This state cannot pay what we've been paying in the past," said House Speaker Bill Batchelder. "Local governments and taxpayers need control over their budgets. This bill, as amended and changed, is a bill that will give control back to the people who pay the bills."
Democratic state Sen. Charleta Tavares, a recent Columbus city councilwoman, called the bill "paternalistic, patronizing, disrespectful and condescending" to city leaders who balance their budgets annually, not every two years as Ohio does.
Two vocal Republicans who again voted against the bill – Sens. Tim Grendell and Bill Seitz – delivered lengthy speeches on the continuing legal flaws in the bill.
Grendell said House changes set up a system for judging performance in teachers that will harm education in the state.
"They'll be teaching to the tests on steroids now, because 50 percent of their evaluation – whether to keep their job, get a pay raise, I don't know what else – is depending on that test," he said.
Pickerington teacher Patricia Kuhn-Morgan said she was confused by connections being drawn between the bill and job creation.
"As teachers, the best way we can have to job creation is to educate the public," she said.
She said she believes Wednesday's vote will hurt the GOP with voters.
"I've spoken to a lot of educators who are typically straight-ticket Republicans that have said to me that they won't ever vote for another Republican because of how this bill's been pushed through and the democratic process has been abused," she said as she awaited the Senate's vote.
State Rep. Robert Hagan, a Democrat from Youngstown, took issue with the notion that the bill was aimed at saving money.
"Don't ever lie to us and don't be hypocritical and don't dance around it as if it's finances, because you know what it is: It's to bust the union," Hagan told his fellow lawmakers.
Contentious debates over restricting collective bargaining have popped up in statehouses across the country, most notably in Wisconsin, where the governor signed into law this month a bill eliminating most of state workers' collective bargaining rights. The Ohio bill has drawn thousands of demonstrators, prompted a visit from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and packed hearing rooms in recent weeks.
Democrats offered no amendments to the bill in either chamber, saying it was too bad to fix. In the House, they delivered boxes containing more than 65,000 opponent signatures to the House labor committee's chairman.
Kasich has said he won't make a spectacle of the moment he signs the bill because he knows its passage is difficult for union supporters.
"We think we have a program here that's going to allow local governments to deal with fewer dollars, it still protects the right of collective bargaining on things that we think are legitimate and will help people be able to cope in a period of time when we do have fewer resources," Kasich told reporters Wednesday at a separate bill signing.
Batchelder said House Republicans were launching a website, sb5truth.com, to correct what they see as falsehoods about the measure.
Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth contributed to this report.