Republican state lawmakers in Ohio sifted through stacks of proposed changes to a bill that would dramatically reduce collective bargaining rights for state employees, as thousands of opponents geared up for demonstrations ahead of a likely vote next week.
Senate leadership set a Friday deadline for amendments, which were still being processed into the evening. All proposals came from Republicans, who control the chamber. It was unclear how many amendments were filed.
Democrats and union leaders say no amount of revisions could fix the legislation.
The initial proposal would have banned all collective bargaining by the 40,000-plus unionized state workers. It imposes other limits on negotiations between police, firefighters, teachers and college and university staffs and their employers
Republican senators have agreed to modify the legislation to allow workers to negotiate on wages. The unions could not bargain for benefits, sick time, vacation or other conditions, and the bill would ban strikes for any public employee.
"You can't tweak a bill that totally takes away collective bargaining rights for all public employees," said state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat from Canfield in northeast Ohio. "If it was a bill that was reasonable in the first place, and it really was an attempt to fix some of the inefficiencies with collective bargaining _ that's one thing. This is another thing."
A state Senate panel is likely to vote on the legislation next week, and the Senate leadership has scheduled an additional session day for Thursday.
The bill has drawn pro-labor protesters and tea party activists to the Statehouse. It's prompted a visit by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland has pledged to lead a ballot repeal if the bill passes.
The measure is being pitched as part of Gov. John Kasich's remedy for an $8 billion budget gap, though it is not written by the new Republican governor. He has said changes to collective bargaining would give power back to managers to keep costs low.
In a telephone interview, Schiavoni acknowledged Democrats lack the majority in the 33-member Senate to stop the bill from moving to the GOP-controlled House.
"It's 23 Republicans and 10 Democrats," he said. "But fortunately for us, we have thousands of Ohioans that are behind us and who are fighting for their right to collectively bargain. Our strategy is to keep the pressure on the Republican senators."
Union groups, the Democratic Party and liberal online group MoveOn.org were among the organizations holding events to protest the bill over the weekend. Other rallies were planned for Tuesday, when a Senate panel is scheduled to hold hearings on the amendments.
A rally of members from the Service Employees International Union District 1199 has delayed the firing of a cannon in honor of Ohio's statehood on Tuesday.
"Because they are expecting 4,000 participants (according to their permit), we thought it best to not fire the Statehouse cannon," said Gregg Dodd, spokesman for the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board that manages the Statehouse property.
Also on Friday, Columbus attorney Don McTigue said he was preparing legal action on behalf of liberal policy group ProgressOhio, state Rep. Teresa Fedor of Toledo, and several Ohio teachers who were initially denied access to the Statehouse during Tuesday's protest.
Of an estimated 5,200 protesters who gathered Tuesday, about 1,000 were initially allowed to enter. They were restricted to two public halls _ the Atrium and Rotunda _ and the rest of the Statehouse was quiet and mostly empty. That meant several thousand others stood outside in freezing temperatures.
McTigue said he questioned whether locking down the Statehouse was a reasonable way to deal with the crowds of people. "We also want to be able to make sure that this doesn't happen again," he said.