WASHINGTON — Union leaders said Wednesday their success in striking down an Ohio law curbing collective bargaining rights for public workers points to an energized labor movement that could be pivotal in helping Democrats win battleground states in next year's election.
"What happened in Ohio last night matters everywhere," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "I think the governors in the other states ought to take heed of this and if they don't, they do so at their own peril."
The vote marked one of the biggest victories in decades for a labor movement that has been on the defensive all year, as unions fight measures in Ohio, Wisconsin and other states that would roll back pensions and benefits for public employees and weaken union clout. Unions are looking to channel that energy into other states – including Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri and Florida – where they believe voters are rejecting GOP policies that have threatened unions.
Ohio voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected the law limiting the bargaining abilities of more than 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public workers. More than 61 percent voted against the measure promoted by Republican Gov. John Kasich. Turnout was the highest ever for an off-year election in Ohio and poll numbers show voters rejected the law by wide margins in nearly every part of the state.
Labor officials said the numbers point to trouble for GOP presidential candidates like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who embraced the anti-union measure on the campaign trail.
"The vote last night was really a roadmap for the Democrats if they're willing to use it for 2012," said AFL-CIO political director Mike Podhorzer.
Kasich had said the law would help hold down taxes and make the state more appealing to business. We Are Ohio, the largely union-funded opponent coalition, painted the issue as a threat to public safety and middle-class workers, spending $24 million on a campaign that included millions of dollars on TV ads filled with images of firefighters, police officers, teachers and nurses.
Building a Better Ohio, which supported the law, spent about $8 million.
Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, said unions would immediately turn their efforts to recalling Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a top target after he pushed through similar legislation limiting union rights in his state.
If unions can recall Walker, "Now you're talking about having significant impact in the 2012 election cycle for many politicians and putting two battleground states in strong play for our candidates," he said.
Some observers warned that unions and Democrats are mistaken if they rush to interpret the Ohio vote too broadly.
"This is really about overreaching by Kasich and the Republicans against unions," said Doug Schoen, a Democratic strategist who worked for President Bill Clinton. "But it's going to be interpreted as an endorsement of populism, leftism, unions. I think Obama would be mistaken to read too much into it broadly for the 2012 election."
The union victory on collective bargaining in Ohio was also tempered by a separate vote where 66 percent of voters rejected an insurance mandate in Obama's federal health insurance overhaul. Jeff Longstreth, who managed the successful campaign, said he sees that issue as more telling for the president's future in the swing state.
But some national Democrats weren't shy about trying to link the result in Ohio to next year's presidential race.
Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz released a statement praising unions "for overcoming the likes of Mitt Romney and the millions of dollars in tea party and special interest money which poured into Ohio to prop up this misguided effort and the unpopular governor who pursued it."
White House spokesman Jay Carney issued a statement saying Obama "congratulates the people of Ohio for standing up for workers" to defeat the measure.
The battle has changed the political landscape in Ohio, said John Russo, a labor studies professor at Youngstown State University. Voters from union households are enthused again after straying away from Democrats in recent elections, he said.
That has the potential to carry over next year.
"Kasich may have helped Obama win the state," Russo said.
Obama faces the challenge of appeasing his party's traditional base, which includes unions, while at the same time pulling in moderates and independents to win re-election.
Kasich, meanwhile, said he respected the voters' decision and would spend time reflecting on the result. Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine criticized Democrats for not offering an alternative plan to deal with revenue shortfalls.
The vote certainly is a boost to beleaguered unions, which have been on the defensive all year as GOP lawmakers around the country sought to rein in budget deficits by targeting generous union pensions and benefits. Even Democratic governors in New York and Connecticut faced down their public employee unions to hold down costs, but did so without trying to limit collective bargaining rights.
Unions fell short earlier this year in their recall campaign to wrest control of the Wisconsin Senate from Republicans. A similar defeat in Ohio "would have been a calamity to them," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
"This will be seen as a successful defensive action, but you can't win games just by stopping touchdowns," Chaison said. "The unions have to be careful that they don't try to read too much into it."
Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio contributed to this report.