By Jo Ingles
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Opponents trying to repeal a controversial Ohio law curbing the union rights of government workers on Wednesday delivered more than enough signatures to force a statewide vote in November to try to repeal the measure, critics of the law said.
"We really blew it out," said Mark Sanders, a Cincinnati fire department lieutenant and the president of the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters. He said now firefighters go into "campaign mode."
Opponents collected some 1.3 million signatures, or about 15 percent of Ohio registered voters, well above the 231,000 required by law to get on the ballot.
Thousands of protesters paraded through the streets of downtown Columbus to the secretary of state's office, following a semi-trailer truck that contained more than 1,500 boxes of petitions. The signatures must still be validated.
The law has not yet taken effect, and will not be implemented pending the November vote.
Signed by Republican Governor John Kasich on April 1, the law curbs collective bargaining and bans strikes for about 360,000 public workers. Ohio was the most populous state to pass anti-union legislation this year.
While massive protests in Wisconsin grabbed national attention, Ohio is more important to the union movement. It has the nation's sixth largest number of public sector union members, which is twice as many as Wisconsin.
Wisconsin's legislation limiting collective bargaining for public workers took effect on Wednesday.
One of the biggest problems for Ohio unions has been a change that does away with binding arbitration in contract disputes, letting the legislative body choose its own offer if negotiations fall apart.
Opponents say this effectively ends collective bargaining because the employer can always come out on top.
Joe Palazzo, a Columbus area teacher who marched in the parade, said employees in his district are willing to make sacrifices in hard times but he sees the new law as nothing but a politically based assault on unions.
"Nobody asked us to sacrifice," Palazzo said. "They say we're just going to cut the whole process out and let you die on the vine. That's just wrong-headed as far as I'm concerned."
Republican Governor John Kasich said the law is needed to protect taxpayers, especially at the local level where schools and safety services are largely funded. Kasich says he's not surprised that opponents of the law appear to have collected enough petition signatures to put the issue on the ballot. But he hopes Ohioans will vote to keep the law.
"I wouldn't presume what an outcome would be but the loss of that would really continue to hamper our local communities," Kasich said.
A Quinnipiac University poll released May 18 found that 54 percent of Ohio voters think the law should be repealed, compared with 36 percent who want to keep it.
(Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Additional reporting by Jo Ingles; Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Bohan)