WASHINGTON - Labor unions are celebrating one of their biggest victories in decades after turning back an Ohio law that curbed collective bargaining rights for the state's public workers. The vote showed unions are still a potent political force that can't be ignored.
The question for many is whether to interpret Tuesday's Ohio referendum as simply a rejection of Republican overreach in a heavily unionized state or more broadly as a barometer of a battleground state that could resonate with voters nationwide.
Union leaders say they hope it brings about a resurgence for a labor movement long in decline and sends a strong message to other states where lawmakers are thinking about restricting union rights. But they also want to use the outcome as a spark to help re-elect President Obama and put more Democrats in office next year.
"I think the outcome is an absolute momentum-shifting victory for the labor movement," said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters.
If unions succeed next year in recalling Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a top target after he pushed through similar legislation limiting union rights in his state, Schaitberger predicted "tremendous impact across the country."
"Now you're talking about having significant impact in the 2012 election cycle for many politicians and putting two battleground states in strong play for our candidates," he said.
By a nearly 2-1 margin, Ohio votersthat would have severely limited the bargaining rights of more than 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other state employees.
The law signed in late March by Republican Gov. John Kasich would have banned public employee strikes, scrapped binding arbitration, and denied public workers the ability to negotiate pensions and health care benefits.
Kasich had said the law would help hold down taxes and make the state more appealing to business. We Are Ohio, the largely union-funded opponent coalition, painted the issue as a threat to public safety and middle-class workers, spending millions of dollars on TV ads filled with images of firefighters, police officers, teachers and nurses.
"It's a huge victory. It can't be underestimated," said Doug Schoen, a Democratic strategist who worked for President Clinton. "But unions will try to read it broadly, and I don't think it is."
Schoen said unions would characterize the win as "a resurgence of the union movement, the resurgence of the left and the revitalization of the Democratic Party. I think it's a repudiation of efforts to get rid of collective bargaining no more, no less."
But some national Democrats weren't shy about trying to link the result in Ohio to next year's presidential race. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz released a statement praising unions "for overcoming the likes of Mitt Romney and the millions of dollars in tea party and special interest money which poured into Ohio to prop up this misguided effort and the unpopular governor who pursued it."
White House spokesman Jay Carney issued a statement saying Mr. Obama "congratulates the people of Ohio for standing up for workers" to defeat the measure.
Mr. Obama faces the challenge of appeasing his party's traditional base, which includes unions, while at the same time pulling in moderates and independents to win re-election.
Kasich, meanwhile, said Tuesday that he respected the voters' decision and would spend time reflecting on the result. Ohio Republican Party Chairman Kevin DeWine criticized Democrats for not offering an alternative plan to deal with revenue shortfalls.
The vote certainly is a boost to beleaguered unions, which have been on the defensive all year as GOP lawmakers around the country sought to rein in budget deficits by targeting generous union pensions and benefits. Even Democratic governors in New York and Connecticut faced down their public employee unions to hold down costs, but did so without trying to limit collective bargaining rights.
Unions fell short earlier this year in their recall campaign to wrest control of the Wisconsin Senate from Republicans. A similar defeat in Ohio "would have been a calamity to them," said Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
"It indicates that the unions are still a force to be reckoned with," Chaison said. "They still can get the ground troops out; they can get the funding and they are media savvy.
We Are Ohio, the union-backed coalition fighting the law, poured at least $24 million into the campaign, while Building a Better Ohio, which supported the law, spent about $8 million.
Lee Saunders, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said unions would use their victory in Ohio "as a springboard to continue into 2012."
"Hopefully, state legislators and governors across the country will look to Ohio and see that they have galvanized us and we're an organized force that has to be dealt with," Saunders said.