By Jo Ingles
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - The Ohio House may vote on Wednesday on a bill that would restrict collective bargaining rights for about 350,000 public employees and ban them from striking.
A version of the bill was passed by the Ohio Senate earlier this month, and is expected to pass the Republican-dominated House.
If the bill is enacted, Ohio would become the biggest U.S. state so far this year to impose sweeping collective bargaining curbs on public sector unions.
The issue has spurred protests in Wisconsin and other states and is likely to be a factor in 2012 U.S. elections.
Republican Governor John Kasich 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.
An amended version of the bill which passed a House committee along party lines Tuesday removed jail time as a possible penalty for workers who participate in strikes and allows police and firefighters to collectively bargain for safety equipment.
But the modified bill is in other ways tougher on unions. It prevents nonunion employees affected by contracts from paying fees to unions and makes it easier to decertify a union. Democrats decry such measures as proof 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.
Kasich said the bill will give local communities a way to control their costs.
If the Republican-majority House passes the bill, it will go to the Senate for a vote to approve changes to the bill made by the House, and would then go to Kasich for his signature.
Democratic State Representative Kenny Yuko admitted this week the fight to kill the bill at the Statehouse is probably over.
He said Democrats and union members will soon be gathering the needed petition signatures so Ohio voters would be able to vote to keep or repeal the law themselves.
(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Jerry Norton)