"Right To Work" Law Proposed Again, But Faces Uncertain Future In Spite of GOP Dominance

Feb 16, 2017

In each of the last two legislative sessions, at least one Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill that would change the rules for union dues and membership for public employees.  But there are questions about whether this latest so-called “right to work” effort has a chance of passing this time.

The first Republican to drop a right to work bill this session is Rep. John Becker (R-Cincinnati), whose proposal would allow public sector employees to opt out of union membership, though state law doesn’t require them to join unions now. And he said it skirts the argument about “freeloaders” by allowing unions to decline to represent workers who don’t join and pay so-called “fair share” dues. Becker is hoping this third time for a so called “right to work” bill in the legislature is a charm – since things have changed around Ohio in the last few years. “With the exception of Pennsylvania, every state is a right to work state. And then Missouri also became right to work. So that’s 28 states now in the union,” Becker said. “So it’s clearly trending now in that direction and Ohio is being left behind.”

Becker says this bill is markedly different from Senate Bill 5, the controversial collective bargaining reform law passed in 2011 that covered all public employees, including police and firefighters. After angry protests at the Statehouse, it was overturned by voters.  But backers say studies show people have higher standards of living in so-called right to work states, which they also say have lower unemployment rates. And for them, this seems like the right time. Republicans picked up another seat in the state House and the Senate this fall, so the veto-proof majorities that existed in both chambers are even stronger now.  But legislative leaders seem cool to the idea. Becker’s bill has 12 cosponsors, but hasn’t been assigned to a committee. Rep. Ryan Smith (R-Bidwell) chairs the House Finance Committee. He wasn’t in office when Senate Bill 5 came through. “This one comes up every GA,” Smith said. “I have no idea – we haven’t sat down and mapped out a game plan on it or anything like that. But it’s something that our members, a certain amount of them, certainly care deeply about, along with the ‘heartbeat bill’ and other issues that are controversial.”

To say “right to work” is controversial is an understatement. Sen. Scott Oelslager (R-North Canton) chairs the Senate Finance Committee and was part of the close vote on Senate Bill 5. “I voted against it, and the people of Ohio, I think, have spoken very clearly how they feel on that particular issue,” Oelslager said.

But should it go forward, the opposition is ready for the fight. Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni (D- Boardman) is considering a run for governor in 2018, and he said this issue would face broad rejection from voters. “Not only is it about union people, but it’s about friends and neighbors that understand the ramifications and wage problems that Ohioans will face if something like that was to pass.”

House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn (D-Dayton) says studies show wages are lower and workplace injuries and deaths are higher in right to work states. So he says if Republicans want to raise this issue – bring it on. “If they want to drag that out to the public discourse and let people actually get to know what that kind of stuff is, I think the ramifications politically are probably bad,” Strahorn said.

In 2011, unions led the passionate fight to repeal Senate Bill 5, and 61% of voters agreed. Last year, President Trump won Ohio by more than 8 points. Pierrette Talley is the secretary-treasurer of the Ohio AFL-CIO. She admits that union households were a reason for Trump’s victory in Ohio – she says largely because of trade issues. But she warns that state lawmakers shouldn’t be emboldened by Trump’s win.  “That doesn’t mean that they don’t want their unions to be vibrant in the state of Ohio,” Talley said. “So we would urge this legislature to back down on ‘right to work’ in the state of Ohio.”

Rep. John Becker isn’t holding out a lot of hope for his bill, but if it does pass, he isn’t concerned about it going the ballot. He says its time has come – that a true right to work measure hasn’t been before voters since 1958.