By Jo Ingles
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - An Ohio legislative committee on Tuesday passed a bill that would restrict collective bargaining by public employees and ban them from striking, part of a nationwide Republican push to curb unions.
Labor unions are a key Democratic Party constituency.
The Ohio House's version of the bill was modified to remove jail time as a possible penalty for public workers who participate in strikes. The bill passed along party lines, with nine Republicans voting for it and six Democrats opposed.
The bill next goes to the full House on Wednesday before the Senate takes it up again after passing a tougher version earlier this month by a narrow 17-16 margin. Republicans hold solid majorities in both houses of the legislature.
Governor John Kasich, a Republican who supports the bill, argues it will put taxpayers and public employees on a more equal footing in respect to pay and benefits. He said local communities will be better able to control their costs, as Ohio and other states struggle to close gaping budget deficits.
Democrats say they will seek union help to gather enough signatures for a November referendum to let voters decide whether to keep or kill the law.
The Wisconsin and Idaho legislatures have already passed laws that limit collective bargaining rights for public sector union workers.
Ohio is more important to organized labor than Wisconsin, with twice as many public sector workers. But Wisconsin gained notoriety when Democratic Senators fled the state to temporarily deny Republicans a vote on the legislation and demonstrators camped out inside the Capitol building.
Both states have been partisan battlegrounds in recent elections and Democrats have staked out a position defending the interests of unions.
Thousands of union members are expected to descend on the Ohio Capitol in the next few days as the bill progresses through the Republican-led legislature.
In Wisconsin, opponents of the state's new law restricting public sector unions' power were back in court on Tuesday, pursuing one of several legal challenges to the measure.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi, who issued an injunction two weeks ago blocking the law's implementation, ruled the case could go ahead though Republicans argued she lacks jurisdiction and the law was already in effect.
A Democratic prosecutor has filed suit, charging lawmakers violated state law requiring 24-hour notice of public meetings in hurriedly passing the measure three weeks ago.
"I think this court has a duty to proceed," Sumi said.
Last week, a state agency published the law despite Sumi's restraining order, and Republican Governor Scott Walker said he would implement it. The agency is nonpartisan but its director is appointed by the leaders of the state legislature -- currently both Republicans backing the measure.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mayers in Madison; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, James Kelleher, Andrew Stern)