COLUMBUS -- The divisive battle over right-to-work legislation could come to Ohio next year.
As neighboring Michigan became the 24th state Tuesday to enact laws that prohibit agreements requiring workers to join a union or pay dues, Ohio groups that support the laws say the Buckeye State has to follow suit or watch jobs leave.
"When we are working with companies who want to investigate locations, the first question on their list is right to work," said Phillip Parker, president and chief executive officer of the Dayton, Ohio, Area Chamber of Commerce. He later backed off the statement he made at a Tuesday press conference, but indications are that the fight is coming to Ohio.
A group called Ohioans for Workplace Freedom is gathering signatures to put the issue on the fall ballot. They need 385,253.
"Indiana has done this. Michigan will. What choice will Ohio have?" tea party activist Chris Littleton of West Chester, Ohio, told the Toledo (Ohio) Blade this week. "This is economic jet fuel for job creation, wage growth and a vibrant Ohio economy. If two border states do this, how can Ohio afford not to do this?"
Indiana was the first to enact right-to-work legislation earlier this year. Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and West Virginia are only states among 16 Southern states without right-to-work laws.
Ohio's Senate minority leader, Democrat Eric H. Kearney of Cincinnati, said Republicans are trying to introduce right-to-work legislation next year. But he could not identify who was leading that effort.
House and Senate Republicans deny any effort is under way.
In Michigan, the right-to-work legislation sped through the state Legislature without public discussion, committee hearings or any Democratic support, and the state's Republican governor signed it immediately. Two bills covering both the public and private sectors make it illegal to require financial support of a labor union as a condition of employment. The new law also prevents closed shops, workplaces that require union membership to get a job.
The law passed in Michigan even though about 17.5 percent of workers were union members in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Ohio, about 13.4 percent of workers are union members.
Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich, a Republican like Michigan's governor, has said making Ohio a right-to-work state isn't a priority. But he hasn't opposed it either -- something Tuesday that state Democrats were quick to call on him to do in a "crystal-clear" way.
"Kasich seems intent on following Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's path, repeatedly assuring Ohioans a right-to-work law is not on his agenda, that is until his agenda miraculously changes," said Chairman Chris Redfern of the Ohio Democratic Party.
Kasich's hesitancy to back a right-to-work law may be because of the beating he took over a bill last year that the Legislature passed and he signed to limit collective-bargaining rights of public employees.
The law revived unions, including firefighters and police officers, who led a successful effort to repeal it. Some credit that effort with contributing to President Barack Obama's victory in Ohio last month.
Kasich runs for re-election in 2014. Even without a right-to-work statute, Kasich said Monday that Ohio is competing well economically with other states. He said he had higher priorities.
Ohio added 127,000 jobs and is ranked fourth nationally and first in the Midwest in job creation, said Kasich, who regularly promotes the numbers to anyone willing to listen.
"Ohio has momentum," said Ellen G. van der Horst, president and chief executive officer of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. She noted that Site Selection magazine ranked Ohio No. 2 in the country for its attractive business climate.
Parker of the Dayton chamber said Ohio needs a right-to-work law to compete with Indiana and Michigan to keep or attract jobs. Hours later, Parker backed off his statement, saying he was speaking only for himself, not even his own organization.
Matt Davis, vice president of government affairs for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber, distanced the Cincinnati chamber from Parker's comments.
"We have not vetted the issue and do not have a position at this time," he said.
Kasich said this week he has a very aggressive agenda for the next two years to keep Ohio competitive, lessening the need for a right-to-work law. The governor plans to pursue tax cuts, infrastructure improvements and education reform.
"I am mindful of the success of states that give workers that option," said state Sen. Bill Coley, a Republican from Liberty Township about 30 miles north of Cincinnati. "But I respect the right of people to bargain."
A February poll by Quinnipiac University found Ohio voters support a right-to-work law 54 percent to 40 percent.
In Kentucky, many Republicans have pushed for making the commonwealth a right-to-work state. The previous Republican governor, Ernie Fletcher, wanted a law, as did former Kentucky Senate President David Williams in his unsuccessful 2011 campaign against Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. However, Democratic-controlled House has not supported the measure.
How a right-to-work constitutional amendment could get onto Ohio's November 2013 ballot:
- Gathering signatures: Petitions with a total of 385,253 valid signatures from registered voters need to be submitted to the Ohio secretary of state by July 3.
- General Assembly: The GOP-controlled Legislature could pass a resolution to put the issue on the ballot. Its deadline is Aug. 7.
By PAUL E. KOSTYU (Contributing: David Jesse and Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press; Scott Wartman, The Cincinnati Enquirer.)
The Cincinnati Enquirer
(Contributing: David Jesse and Lori Higgins, Detroit Free Press; Scott Wartman, The Cincinnati Enquirer.)