By Jo Ingles
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - An Ohio House committee on Tuesday passed a bill that would restrict collective bargaining rights for about 350,000 public employees and ban them from striking.
The bill was modified to remove jail time as a possible penalty for workers who participate in strikes and to allow police and firefighters to collectively bargain for safety equipment. The bill passed out of committee along party lines, with 9 Republicans voting for it and six Democrats against.
The bill is expected to go the House floor on Wednesday for a vote. The Ohio Senate narrowly passed a tougher version of the bill by a 17-16 margin earlier this month.
If enacted, Ohio would become the biggest U.S. state so far to impose sweeping collective bargaining curbs on public sector unions. The issue has spurred protests in Wisconsin and other states and may become a factor in the 2012 U.S. elections.
Republican Governor John Kasich says he's not concerned that the House version of the bill will be watered down. He said the bill will put taxpayers and public employees on a more equal footing regarding pay and benefits.
"This is really nothing more than an effort to re-balance the system and make sure that the people who pay the taxes are represented at the table," Kasich said.
The amended bill contains some new provisions that would prevent nonunion employees affected by contracts from paying fees to unions and would ban automatic deductions from employee paychecks. Democrats decry these measures in particular as proof that the bill is a politically motivated attack on unions dressed up as a budget measure.
Senate Democratic Leader Capri S. Cafaro said the changes "made a bad bill even worse."
"The changes to Senate Bill 5 are just more window dressing to anti-worker legislation that will have a devastating effect on families and communities across the state," Cafaro said.
The Wisconsin and Idaho legislatures have already passed laws that limit collective bargaining rights for state union workers.
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. With many auto and steel and manufacturing plants, Ohio is also a union bellwether.
But Kasich said the bill will give local communities a way to control their costs.
Thousands of union members are expected to descend on the Ohio capital on Wednesday as the bill comes to the House floor.
The House, which has a Republican majority, is expected to pass the bill. If it does, it will go to the Senate for a vote to approve changes to the bill made by the House, and it would then go to Kasich for his signature.
Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature, and the governor's office. At least one Democrat, Representative Kenny Yuko, admitted on Monday the fight to kill the bill at the Statehouse is probably over.
"We are looking at a referendum. I think we all know it," Yuko said.
He said Democrats and union members will soon be gathering the needed petition signatures so Ohio voters will likely be able to vote to keep or repeal the law themselves at the ballot box.
"We already know that we have to get this one on the ballot in November," said Nancy DiBanca, a teacher with the Cuyahoga Heights School District.
(Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Jerry Norton and Peter Bohan)