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Home » Clarion » 2011 » May 2011 » Fight Over Union Rights: Conflict in Many States

Fight Over Union Rights: Conflict in Many States


While Wisconsin has gotten the most attention, unions have been fighting anti-worker legislation in a number of other states as well.

On March 31, Gov. John Kasich signed a bill, SB 5, that would strip public employees of most bargaining rights. Public-sector unions would be barred from negotiating over basic issues like health care, sick time or pensions, and would be prohibited from striking. Some bargaining could still occur on wages and a few other issues, but all guaranteed wage increases would be replaced by “merit” systems that give managers wide discretion. Binding arbitration would be eliminated: state and local governments and public agencies would have the power to impose a contract on their own terms whenever bargaining hit an impasse.

For faculty at Ohio’s public universities, the news is even worse: the bill would reclassify most as “management-level employees,” and thereby bar them completely from union membership. Ohio law already rules out collective bargaining by contingent faculty at public universities –
but SB 5 is so broadly worded that even some adjuncts might find that they are now classified as managers.

Implementation of SB 5, however, has been suspended due to a pending effort to overturn it in a statewide ballot initiative. Under Ohio law, once petitioners file an initial 1,000 signatures seeking a referendum on a recently adopted bill, they have 90 days in which to gather enough signatures to force a public vote. The law does not take effect during that period – and if petition-gatherers succeed, the law remains suspended until the referendum vote is held.


At an 11,000-person rally held in Columbus on April 9, to mark the start of the petition campaign, organizers were optimistic about getting the required 231,147 signatures within the 90 days. “We have thousands of people asking us not, ‘Where do I sign?” but ‘Where do I sign up to become a petition circulator?’” an activist with the pro-union coalition We Are Ohio told the Youngstown Vindicator.

In a statewide poll in mid-April, respondents favored repeal of the anti-union measure by a double-digit margin, 51% to 38%. Gov. Kasich’s numbers have plunged during the fight over union rights: another recent poll found him to be the least popular governor in the nation, with an approval rating of 30%.

“The basic human rights of 400,000 public-sector workers in Ohio have been cast aside,” said AAUP President Cary Nelson. SB 5 is “a very targeted aggression toward faculty members,” Nelson told Inside Higher Ed. “We simply can’t let this stand.” AAUP and AFT chapters in Ohio, which have advocated for contingent faculty union rights, are both working on the referendum campaign.

Anger among faculty increased when the head of the state’s association of public colleges and universities, the Inter-University Council of Ohio, admitted that it was the Council that had asked the legislature to classify its faculty members as managers. Bruce Johnson, the Council’s president and CEO, said the shift was needed “to improve managerial processes on campus, to increase efficiencies and reduce costs.” The measure’s wording is similar to the Yeshiva court decision that has hobbled union organizing at private universities for many years.

Some college and university presidents spoke out on the other side. “I was raised in a union family,” said Wright State’s president, David Hopkins, who opposed passage of SB 5. “[I] have found our union leadership to be of the highest quality,” he said in a campus e-mail, “and I believe we are a stronger institution because of their dedicated commitment to their membership.”


In mid-March, full-time faculty got a hint of what Johnson had in mind when he spoke of “efficiencies”: Gov. Kasich’s budget address included a proposal that professors be required to teach an additional course every two years. Jack Fatica, head of the AFT local at Terra Community College, told Inside Higher Ed that “faculty workload has been an issue on which he is proud of contract advances.” But if SB 5 takes effect, faculty will have no chance to bargain over Kasich’s extra course.

In Michigan a law was enacted in March that allows the governor to appoint emergency financial managers with broad powers to break union contracts, fire or override elected officials, and even dissolve entire towns. “Under the law whole cities or school districts could be eliminated without any public participation or oversight,” the Michigan Messenger reported. An earlier version of the bill would have allowed the emergency manager to be a private corporation.

In March, Maine Gov. Paul LePage ordered a labor history mural removed from the Maine Dept. of Labor, saying it was “one-sided.” Above is one of the mural’s 11 panels.


“This is a takeover by the right wing,” said Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney, “and it’s an assault on democracy like I’ve never seen.” As in Wisconsin, conservative activists have filed legal requests seeking the e-mails of professors they consider pro-union.

Already the emergency law has been used to force workers to make concessions. The city of Flint received an $8 million emergency bond to meet expenses only after public employees agreed to pay more for health care and give up holiday and night-shift pay – givebacks they accepted to avoid having an emergency manager imposed.

Protests continue in Michigan’s capital, Lansing, as the consequences of the bill become more widely understood and Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposals for huge budget cuts are debated. Close to 7,000 protesters assembled to protest the law on April 14, in Lansing, where almost weekly protests have numbered into the tens of thousands. Snyder’s poll numbers are declining, though he has not sunk as low as Kasich.

While some activists favor organizing to recall Snyder, that idea faces difficult procedural hurdles. The state’s unions are looking to challenge the emergency legislation in court, while the Michigan Education Association (MEA) asked its local chapters to consider whether the MEA should “initiate crisis activities up to and including job action.”

Several anti-union bills were withdrawn or scaled back after large union protests sparked an extended walkout by the Democratic minority in Indiana’s House. A newly powerful Republican majority introduced a series of ambitious anti-labor bills, including a so-called “right-to-work” bill to ban the union shop; legislation for large-scale privatization of public schools; dropping protection for construction workers, and making permanent Indiana’s temporary ban on public-sector collective bargaining. Unions responded with daily protests in Indianapolis in late February and early March.


Following the example of their counterparts in Wisconsin, Democratic legislators exited the state, denying Republicans a quorum. They stayed out of the state for nearly five weeks while pursuing often tense and angry negotiations over withdrawal of the anti-union measures. Mass protests against the bills continued, with one on March 24 drawing more than 20,000 people. State Rep. Bill Crawford said it had become “a movement, as opposed to a typical political battle.”

As a result of the public and procedural pressure, GOP legislators agreed to drop the “right-to-work” bill, the school privatization measure, and the permanent ban on public-worker bargaining. The compromise does allow a pilot project of school vouchers for 7,500 students and would largely ban new project labor agreements, which allow unionized construction companies to be more competitive in bidding on contracts. But most unionists considered the result a substantial victory, considering the Republicans’ solid legislative majority.


Battles over workers’ rights are being fought out in many other states, including Oklahoma, Nebraska, Tennessee, New Hampshire and Florida. In March, Idaho adopted legislation that limits public-school teacher unions to bargaining over salary and benefits, prohibiting negotiations over class size or course loads and ending teacher tenure. Idaho’s teachers’ union vowed to fight on.

“I know teachers,” said state union president Sherri Wood. “I’ve been in this profession for 34 years, and I know that the voices of teachers will not be silenced.”


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