By Mary Wisniewski
HAMILTON, Ohio (Reuters) - Hamilton, Ohio firefighter Tony Harris did not want to take "yes" for an answer.
Working a phone bank to urge voters to vote "no" on an Ohio law that sharply curbs public sector union rights, Harris politely but persistently argued with a voter who said she did not like collective bargaining.
"The biggest thing for us in police and fire is it affects negotiating for safe staffing," Harris said. "It affects how many firetrucks we have on the streets and how many guys we have on those firetrucks." While he didn't get the voter to pledge a "no" vote, he did ask her to keep studying the issue.
Harris is part of an army of Ohio public employees who have vowed to work phone banks and ring doorbells through election day on November 8 to fight a law which bans public worker strikes and so limits union negotiating power that opponents say it reduces "collective bargaining" to "collective begging."
A REFERENDUM FIGHT
A centerpiece of Republican Gov. John Kasich's legislative agenda, the bill passed the Republican-dominated assembly in the spring. But opponents were able to gather 1.3 million signatures to halt the law's enactment and put it on the November 8 ballot for repeal.
Both sides are fighting furiously with phone banks, yard signs, and TV ads. We Are Ohio, seeking to defeat the bill, has spent $17.3 million between June and October. Building a Better Ohio, which supports the law, has spent $5.9 million, according to the Ohio Secretary of State.
A Quinnipiac University poll shows that as of late October, nearly 6 out of 10 Ohio voters say they want to repeal the law. Kasich's popularity has fallen along with sentiment about the bill, and some Democrats say the first-term governor overreached on the bill -- which is more expansive than the anti-union law passed in Wisconsin.
But proponents say they're gaining momentum as more people learn about the law.
"We feel that as people start to understand that this is just a reasonable set of reforms that ultimately people will support it," said Alex Triantafilou, chair of the Hamilton County Republican Party. He said the law empowers taxpayers to cut costs in a sagging economy.
The bill allows bargaining on wages but bans it for health coverage, pensions or staffing levels. If management and a union do not reach a settlement, management can impose its final offer -- which Republican State Senator and law opponent Bill Seitz mocked as a "heads I win, tails you lose" proposition.
"The other side is trying to confuse people by saying this is some kind of mild reform to collective bargaining," said David Pepper, a Democrat and former Cincinnati councilman and Hamilton County commissioner. "That's not what it is -- for all intents and purposes it eliminates collective bargaining."
The law also requires firefighters, police officers and teachers to pay at least 15 percent of their health insurance premiums, and would get rid of automatic pay increases and replace them with merit pay.
OHIO MORE IMPORTANT
While massive protests in Wisconsin earlier this year grabbed national attention, Ohio is more important to unions. It has 360,000 public sector union members and the fifth largest number of total union members in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Unlike Wisconsin, the Ohio bill includes not only teachers and health workers but police and firefighters -- a group that tends to be popular with conservatives.
"I guess you could argue that the legislators in Ohio are even more reckless than they are in Wisconsin," said Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, a Democrat, who said that the governors of Wisconsin and Ohio seem to be trying to "out-Republican" each other.
Kasich said he is trying to keep jobs in Ohio, by keeping taxes under control.
"The simple matter is if our communities cannot stabilize their costs, they will lose jobs," Kasich told reporters at a rally outside Cincinnati. "I know because I meet with companies who either want to expand here or come to Ohio and they say if my costs are too high I'm going elsewhere."
Firefighter and police unions, who were not allowed to strike even before the new law, said it would prevent them from having a say in staffing levels and safety equipment, such as bulletproof vests. Triantafilou said that soldiers do not get to bargain for their safety equipment, and that government bodies would not dare allow unsafe conditions for fire and police.
"The safety argument is one of the ways the other side, I think, is partly deceiving the public," said Triantafilou."
Mike Allen, a former prosecutor and Cincinnati cop now running for city council as an independent, said governments have compromised worker safety in the past, which is why the right to collective bargaining was enacted in 1984.
After a number of Cincinnati police officers were killed in the line of duty, police held an illegal 24-hour strike in 1979 over what they said were unsafe work conditions. They pulled their squad cars in front of City Hall, turned on their revolving lights and let the car batteries run down, Allen said. Toledo firefighters also held a massive 1979 strike, leaving fires to burn with no one to put them out.
"That was the impetus for reform," Allen said.
The issue has crossed party lines -- with Republicans such as Seitz opposing the bill, while Jeff Berding, a Democratic former Cincinnati councilman, has been debating in the bill's favor around the state.
Berding said he knows elected officials want reasonable collective bargaining reforms, but are afraid to speak up because of union power.
"If you are pro (the new law), you are considered anti-union and your career with the Democratic party is over," Berding said. Berding said he lost his Democratic endorsement for city council after he riled unions.
Ohio Republicans are also campaigning on another referendum item -- a constitutional amendment that would let state residents opt out of requirements of the federal health care law. Triantafilou said he hopes it will motivate conservatives to go to the polls, and vote yes on both measures.
(Writing by Mary Wisniewski, Editing by Greg McCune)