COLUMBUS, OH - The State Highway Patrol limited access to the Statehouse today as thousands of protesters stood outside in the cold, many angry they could not get inside to register their opposition to a bill that would eliminate collective bargaining for state employees.
Fearing for the safety of the hundreds already gathered in the Statehouse, the patrol locked outside doors, leaving throngs of protesters on the east side along Third Street chanting and cheering so loud that they could be heard across Downtown.
"My taxes pay for this and I should be allowed in," said Diane Twarog, a representative for the Service Employees International Union, who made the trip with her niece and nephew from St. Clairsville.
Legislative Democrats said this afternoon they are seeking an injunction to force Statehouse officials and the Ohio Highway Patrol to open the doors and allow more people in.
An unusually animated House Minority Leader Armond Budish, D-Beachwood, called it a sad day that people have to go to court to get into the Statehouse and talk to their legislators.
"This is what we ask for. We want people to participate," he said. "They come down from all parts of Ohio to participate in government and the doors are locked. That is wrong."Joe Andrews, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, said crowds were limited for safety reasons, such as if emergency personnel needed to treat someone inside who was ill or injured.
"Obviously if there is a court order, we will abide by it," Andrews said.
Greg Dodd, deputy director of the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, estimated the size of the crowd inside and outside the Statehouse at 4,000. That is a little larger than the gathering that packed the Statehouse on Thursday as the Senate began hearings on Senate Bill 5, GOP-sponsored legislation supported by Gov. John Kasich that would end collective bargaining for state workers and weaken the ability of local workers to bargain for their pay, benefits and working conditions.
With a third and likely final hearing on the bill scheduled to begin at 4 p.m., busloads of union-sympathizers came from across the state, many carrying placards and chanting "No bill" at the top of their lungs. Music also filled the air, thanks to a bagpipe and drums corps from one of the state's safety force unions.
With a SWAT vehicle stationed across Third Street from the Statehouse and heavy security across the grounds, the patrol allowed only about 750 inside the Capitol. Seats were placed in the Atrium so the protesters could listen to the scheduled testimony of about 15 opponents to the bill at a Senate committee hearing.
An overflow area for about 875 was created in the Riffe Center across High Street from the Statehouse with arrangements made to pipe in testimony from the hearing. Speakers also were put up on the west lawn of the Statehouse so protesters could hear testimony.
The Ohio bill, and the protests it has drawn, mirror the scenario in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker and his GOP-legislative majorities are stymied from enacting the anti-union legislation because Democratic lawmakers are away from the Statehouse in hiding.
Today, Ohio Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern said that if Kasich and GOP legislators ram through Senate Bill 5, a ballot challenge almost certainly will follow.
"The people of the state will gather together and we'll put this on the ballot," Redfern said as he joined protesters in the Rotunda. "If it's a piece of legislation, we will repeal it at the ballot box, and that will happen. That is the great fear the Republican Party has right now, because of the overreach they're playing out right now."
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro, would end collective bargaining for state workers and instead set up a merit-based pay system. Police and firefighters, who cannot strike, would lose binding arbitration, and the bill weakens local bargaining for teachers and others in a number of areas, including removing step increases and sick days from state law and no longer allowing them to bargain for health insurance. Teachers could still strike, but school officials could hire permanent replacements.
"I believe Gov. Kasich decided he wants to squash unions and found a creative way to do it, but he has to realize that we've fought this battle before and he will not stop us because we will fight to the very end," JoAnn Johntony, president of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, which represents 38,000 non-teaching school employees, said as she joined protesters in the Statehouse atrium.
Earlier today, heads of state police and firefighter unions held a press conference to urge Republicans to slow down the process and allow more debate on the bill.
"What's the rush?" Jack Reall, head of the Columbus firefighters' union, asked rhetorically.
He said two weeks of hearings on Senate Bill 5, which is almost 500 pages, is not enough time in the context of rolling back a collective bargaining law that is 27 years old.
"We came to slow it down and see if we can come to a consensus on this thing," Reall said.
Sen. Kevin Bacon, R-Minerva Park, the chairman of the Senate Insurance Commerce and Labor Committee, said the process is "a lot more fluid than people think." He said there is work going on with safety forces on the binding arbitration issue, but he stressed that is a key part of the bill.
As for complaints about the speed of action, he said, "People are so used to government moving at a snail's pace, maybe this is a rush to them."
Asked about concerns being raised particularly by teachers that the bill could lead to huge salary cuts, Bacon said, "I guess that's what happens when the unions start putting out bulletins. I don't know where that is coming from."
Bacon said most public workers would still have collective bargaining and civil service protections would remain. "The post-Senate Bill 5 doom-and-gloom nuclear scenario just isn't true"
Sen. Timothy J. Grendell, R-Chesterland, questioned how much protection civil service would provide. He said the bill could end up costing the state money and should scare conservatives worried about private contracting rights.
"Even if you say these are publicly granted contracts so the government has more leeway, you're opening up a Pandora's Box to the principle that government can interfere with private contract rights when it suits government's purpose," Grendell said. "If you're a conservative or a tea party person, you should be greatly concerned about that concept because today's collective bargaining agreement could be tomorrow's private business contract."
Grendell said he favors some changes to collective bargaining limiting binding arbitration rulings under a new formula and making teachers re-earn their tenure but he thinks the bill goes too far. Eliminating collective bargaining for state workers as a way to establish a grievance process to settle disputes over terminations or other workplace issues would be replaced by lawsuits.
"As written, Senate Bill 5 becomes the labor lawyers' full employment act," he said.
"You need to have some form of collective bargaining to actually expedite management's ability to deal with the work force and save taxpayers money. I guarantee you litigation will be more expensive than collective bargaining."
The Dispatch has spoken to eight GOP senators who either would not express support for the bill, or have stated varying degrees of discomfort with it.
Although Jones had reached out to the Ohio Federation of Police for its input, Reall said she did not contact firefighter unions. "We have never refused to talk to anybody about how to make things better."
Heads of private sector labor unions held a noontime press conference to show their solidarity with the public employee unions, and universally labeled Senate Bill 5 as evidence of a coordinated national attack by Republicans on labor unions, which overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates.
"This is a vendetta and it's starting with the public employees," said Dennis Duffey, executive director of the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Council.
"This piece of legislation is mean-spirited and it's about the elimination of the middle class, not just in Ohio but in the country," said Dave Caldwell, assistant director of District 1 of the United Steel Workers.
"It's the first step in a long line of things they want to do toward the elimination of the middle class."
Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO said, "Senate Bill 5 is a misguided approach that will have a ripple effect throughout the work force, driving down wages, workers rights and benefits for all workers and their families."