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Ohio vote on collective bargaining is parsed for 2012 omens


LAST UPDATED: 4:33 a.m. HST, Nov 10, 2011

COLUMBUS, Ohio » The landslide vote to repeal an Ohio law that limits collective bargaining has sounded a strong note of caution for Republican governors and lawmakers, raising questions about some of their legislative efforts, especially those that would weaken labor unions. But Tuesday's victory, while trumpeted by labor leaders, may not necessarily improve the prospects of unions or their traditional allies, the Democrats, in 2012, political analysts said.

As labor leaders took their victory lap Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats from Maine to Wisconsin were adding the Ohio results to their political calculus for next year's presidential election. Would there be fallout in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker could face a recall vote next spring? What can Democrats do to try to keep the energy — and the issue — from fizzling?

Gov. John R. Kasich, who had pushed the law in Ohio, seemed chastened, acknowledging Tuesday night that, for voters, the bill had been "too much too soon." Even before the vote, his approval rating was just 36 percent, according to a Quinnipiac poll in October.

"The results here in Ohio are likely to give Republican governors and legislators incentives to be cautious," said John C. Green, director of the Bliss Institute, a political research center at the University of Akron. "The popularity of the Republican position has fallen somewhat."

But Tuesday's result contained a twist: The same voters who overwhelmingly rejected the labor bill — by a margin of 61 to 39 percent — voted in even greater numbers in favor of a symbolic measure against President Barack Obama's health care law. Democrats dismissed it, but State Sen. Bill Seitz, a Republican who opposed the repealed law, said it spoke to a deeper disgust among voters with the political class.

"The message is, a plague on both your houses," Seitz said. "It was a non-ideological expression of frustration by an overwhelming number of voters about the inability of their elected leaders to come up with a more consensus-based collaborative approach."

Labor and Democratic politicians seized on the referendum as a warning to Republicans.

"Governors in other states ought to take heed of this," said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. "If not, they do so at their own peril, and they may face a backlash."

Trumka was referring to Indiana, Missouri, Michigan, Maine, Florida and Tennessee, states where Republicans have sought to enact legislation to weaken labor unions.

Perhaps the biggest fallout of the Ohio vote will be in Wisconsin, where thousands of union volunteers have geared up to collect the 540,000 signatures needed to get Walker's recall on the ballot. Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said that while the states were distinct, the outcome in Ohio "should probably worry him a bit," referring to Walker.

But Stephan Thompson, executive director of the Republican Party in Wisconsin, said in a statement that comparing the situation in Ohio and Wisconsin was "ridiculous," and that Democrats were "clearly desperate to manufacture momentum for their recall attempt."

In Ohio on Wednesday, Democrats were ecstatic. They had dented, perhaps for the first time, the Republican confidence that had carried the party through ambitious legislative agendas in a number of states.

Still, Green and other political scientists cautioned against inferring too much from Tuesday's victory, drawing the comparison with Republican euphoria after the 2010 midterms.

"They were very excited to win the election and then they found out that governing is very hard," he said. "Unions and their allies have every right to be excited this morning, but what that means for the future is not entirely clear."

Labor leaders said the Ohio results were an instruction manual for the Democrats, after months of being on the defensive.

"The election last night is the road map for the Democrats if they're willing to use it," said Michael Podhorzer, the AFL-CIO's political director. "The base isn't permanently immobilized. It just needs to be mobilized by an issue they care about."

Republican lawmakers said the electorate favored some of the law's provisions — like performance-based compensation, and paying more toward health care and pension plans. They said that while there was no immediate plan to submit new legislation, the issue of trimming labor costs was still pressing.

"SB5 went away last night, but the problem didn't," said State Sen. Keith Faber, a Republican who voted for the bill. "Reform is necessary."

Other states watched warily.

In Indiana, a Republican-led legislative committee recently recommended adopting a right-to-work law, which would eliminate any requirement that workers in unionized workplaces pay union dues or fees. State Sen. Phil Boots, a Republican on the committee, said legislators in Ohio "went farther than they should have."

Labor experts said events in Ohio were a cautionary tale against legislative overreach.

"This is a wake-up call to tone it down and take on more achievable goals," said Samuel Estreicher, the director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at New York University. "A movement towards reform is inevitable because the economics are calling for it."

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