By Mary Wisniewski
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Ohio joined Wisconsin on Wednesday in advancing a plan to restrict public sector unions, posing a new threat to labor union power in one of the most politically and economically important states.
The Republican-controlled Ohio state senate approved a proposal to curb the collective bargaining rights of public employees and forbid government workers from going on strike.
The vote followed the Wisconsin Assembly's approval last week of a similar proposal, which has sparked mass protests and a national debate over labor relations.
In both states, the plans still must be passed by a second chamber of the legislature and signed by the states' governors. Republicans, who have been pushing the anti-union proposals, hold the governorships and legislative majorities in both Wisconsin and Ohio.
If enacted, Ohio would become the biggest U.S. state so far to impose sweeping restrictions on public sector unions.
What began three weeks ago as a dispute between Wisconsin's newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker and state unions has blown up into possibly the biggest challenge to the labor movement since President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
Republicans say the moves are needed to rescue recession-battered state budgets from debt, but Democrats and union supporters say the proposals are an attack on organized labor that could linger into the 2012 elections.
While Wisconsin has gained more national attention, Ohio is far more important to the union movement. It has the sixth largest number of public sector union members among all U.S. states, twice the number of Wisconsin.
The Ohio proposal was narrowly approved on a Senate vote of 17 to 16, with six majority Republicans joining Democrats to vote against it.
"SHAME ON YOU"
After the vote, workers listening to the proceedings outside the Ohio Senate chambers shouted "Shame on you" and "We'll remember this."
Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich hailed the Senate vote and said it would help local governments get the economy back on track. "This is a major step forward in correcting the imbalance between taxpayers and the government unions that work for them," Kasich said.
More than 8,000 protesters converged on Ohio's capital on Tuesday to demonstrate against the proposal, which would affect workers including public school teachers, firefighters and police.
In Wisconsin, the curbs on public unions that passed the Assembly last week exempted police and firefighters.
At a news conference in Columbus with Ohio Democrats, representatives of fire and police unions complained the Ohio bill would take away their ability to bargain for safety equipment, such as bullet-proof vests.
"This bill provides for our safety to be contracted out to the lowest bidder," said Jay McDonald of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police.
The Ohio house will debate the bill next week.
The Wisconsin proposal has been hung up in a stalemate between Walker and Senate Democrats, who fled the state on February 17 to prevent a quorum and block a vote.
The Wisconsin state Senate on Wednesday approved a resolution to fine the missing Democrats $100 a day for boycotting the vote, hoping to pressure the runaways into returning.
Walker, who proposed a two-year budget on Tuesday with deep spending and job cuts, said he was willing to compromise with Democrats on his budget plan but did not offer to negotiate on the union restrictions.
Ohio only requires a simple majority to vote on bills, so it would do the Ohio Democrats no good to leave the state.
Several other states also are considering measures affecting public sector unions, including Indiana, Tennessee, Idaho and Kansas.
But the Indiana state assembly has also stalled on a measure aimed at unions after most of its 40 Democrats left the state for neighboring Illinois, depriving Republicans of the quorum needed to pass bills.
(Additional reporting by David Bailey. Writing by Greg McCune. Editing by John Whitesides and Peter Bohan)