Ohio's union rights referendum: A swing state sets the stage for the 2012 election

In this Nov. 3, 2011 photo, opponents of Issue 2 await the arrival of Ohio Gov. John Kasich for a rally in Independence, Ohio. A momentous showdown over Ohio
AP Photo/Tony Dejak
In this Nov. 3, 2011 photo, opponents of Issue 2 await the arrival of Ohio Gov. John Kasich for a rally in Independence, Ohio. A momentous showdown over Ohio's tough new restrictions on public employee unions culminates Tuesday in a vote that will resound nationally in a crucial victory for the embattled labor movement or a backlash against government spending.
AP Photo/Tony Dejak

Voters in Ohio today will decide whether to keep or to throw out the controversial law passed by Republican leaders this year that essentially ended public employees' ability to collectively bargain or strike, among other things.

Like so many other states where the battle over union rights played out this year, both sides of the debate have thrown huge sums of money into this election. At stake is nothing less than the future of union workers' rights and the state's precarious finances.

The fight over collective bargaining is truly a state issue -- but Ohio happens to be a state directly on the path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. With that in mind, it may come as no surprise that everyone from the Obama administration to Sarah Palin has weighed in on Tuesday's vote.

At issue is the law referred to as SB 5 -- the sweeping anti-union law the Republican-led legislature and Republican Gov. John Kasich passed in March. The law greatly scales back the collective bargaining power of Ohio's approximately 360,000 public workers. Certain issues, like health care benefits, are completely off the bargaining table.

The new law also bans public worker strikes, bars unions from requiring payments from workers who choose not to join the union, and eliminates automatic pay raises based on seniority. It calls for public workers to pay at least 15 percent of their health care costs and contribute at least 10 percent of their salary to their pension. It also gets rid of binding arbitration, which enabled a third party to impose a settlement when a union and management failed to resolve a dispute.

Some recent polling suggests voters want to repeal the law -- a Quinnipiac poll in late October showed that 57 percent of registered voters support its repeal -- but there are factors at work that make the outcome of today's election far from certain. For starters, turnout in an off-year election is always hard to anticipate. On top of that, the voters that do show up may be confused about which way to vote: A "yes" vote is to keep the new law; a "no" vote is to repeal it.

A victory for unions would affirm their public support, as well as their on-the-ground organization in a critical 2012 state.

Some taking an active interest in the vote see it as more than that: "If Senate Bill 5 is repealed, it will embolden the Left and give Obama hope that he can carry Ohio in 2012, which could pave the way for his re-election," writes David Bossie, president of Citizens United -- the conservative political group known as the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that led to significant changes in campaign finance laws.

That's why Citizens United invested just over $100,000 to run an ad in the Cleveland area in the final days before the election, arguing that the new law will allow parents and educators to run schools more effectively. The group also campaigned for the new union restrictions in Wisconsin, which sparked a bitter fight earlier this year.

"They're all part of the tapestry of going into 2012," Bossie told Hotsheet. "We need to fight on each one of these ballots so we can try to make incremental gains toward defeating Barack Obama in 2012."

However, Bossie said that, given the recent polling and the efforts of unions to repeal the law, "Every fiber of my being believes we will probably not be able to win on Tuesday."

If Bossie and other supporters of the law are convinced they'll be defeated, they're not acting like it. Groups in support of the law went on an advertising blitz in the last week, buying $2.5 million worth of ads in Ohio to win last-minute support for the law. Along with Citizens United, groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Alliance for America's Future (run by Dick Cheney's daughter) have pitched in this year in support of the law. Even Sarah Palin put in a word of support for the law on her Facebook page, writing that as a "proud former union member," she believes the law "will help restore fairness to Ohio taxpayers and help balance the budget."

Still, opponents of the law appear to have the upper hand when it comes to fundraising. Unions and their supporters also spent $2.5 million on ads in the final days before the election. Opponents of the law, united under the umbrella group "We are Ohio," raised $30.6 million through October, according to state filings. The group "Building a Better Ohio," which supports the law, raised just $7.6 million.

Unions say they also have a better ground game. Michael Gillis, communications director for AFL-CIO in Ohio, said the labor organization has thousands of volunteers knocking on doors and manning phone banks. "That's how we think we win this campaign, through direct contact with Ohio voters," he said.

The AFL-CIO, which formed a super PAC earlier this year, has been focused on building year-round political support for its causes -- building a permanently engaged constituency, learning the other side's playbook, and learning how to respond to it. In this campaign, that means keeping voters focused specifically on collective bargaining rights while the law's supporters try to nationalize the issue by associating Tuesday's vote with Mr. Obama.

"The other side has done their best to confuse the issue, and you can tell that by a lot of their advertising," Gillis said. "They really try to represent [the collective bargaining law] for something that it's not."

While the fight over collective bargaining may be a decidedly state-based issue, it will certainly be part of the national political discussion in 2012 and beyond.

In fact, last month voters had a preview of what a presidential debate over Ohio's union laws may look like, when Republican candidate Mitt Romney visited the state. The former Massachusetts governor declined to comment about the issue -- even though the Ohio Republican party said he was there in part to rally phone bank volunteers in support of the law -- only to reverse course a day later in Virginia and say he a strongly supported Ohio's law.

Romney's apparent flip-flop suggests he may have had that Quinnipiac poll in the back of his mind, considering how his support of the GOP-backed law would play among the general electorate in 2012. The mere fact that he was even in Ohio -- one of the last states to hold its presidential nominating contests -- suggests Romney was looking past the primaries to the general election.

"Eventually, any presidential nominee will have to come through Ohio if they're looking to win in 2012," Gillis said. Politicians "look at [the collective bargaining law] and they see a massively unpopular issue and are looking for ways to distance themselves from it."

The Democratic Governors Association, which contributed $150,000 to the pro-repeal group "We Are Ohio" and invested $30,000 in online advertising on the issue, points out that the law is strongly associated with Gov. Kasich. That provides Mr. Obama and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown (also up for re-election in 2012) a foil for the state of the economy in Ohio.

"They'll be able to point to what Gov. Kasich has done, which is wage war against unions, and public employees, all while unemployment is on the rise on the state," said DGA spokesperson Lis Smith. "I have a hard time believing that Mitt Romney or any other of the candidates will be calling up Gov. Kasich for a photo-op any time soon."

The Quinnipiac poll that showed opponents of the law prevailing Tuesday also showed that Ohio voters had a slight preference for Mr. Obama in a match-up against Romney, 45 percent to 41 percent.

In the days following Romney's remarks, the White House confirmed that the president "strongly supports" collective bargaining rights, while the Democratic National Committee produced a web video slamming Romney for flip-flopping on the issue.

Democrats may appear to have an edge when it comes to this collective bargaining law, but it's unclear whether a victory Tuesday could help the president and his party in 2012.

While Ohio voters may slightly prefer the president over Romney, the Quinnipiac poll showed that most Ohioans -- 51 percent -- still disapprove of the president's job performance, and only 44 percent say he deserves a second term.

What's more, a USA Today/ Gallup poll released last week showed that in 12 critical swing states, including Ohio, Republicans are more enthusiastic than Democrats about the presidential election, 59 percent to 48 percent.