As Wis. Republicans move forward on anti-union bill, Ohio GOP makes slight concession

  • Article by: TODD RICHMOND , Associated Press
  • Updated: February 24, 2011 - 2:26 AM

MADISON, Wis. - Ohio Republicans edged back on a plan to strip public workers of their union rights while their counterparts in Wisconsin slogged ahead on a similar proposal, pushing through a punishing debate that stretched into its third day in the state Assembly.

Republicans in both states maintain the measures would limit spending by handing government entities more flexibility in dealing with workers. But Democrats and their union allies see the bills as a full-out attack designed to cripple union fundraising for Democrats.

The battle over labor rights has been heating up across the country, as new Republican majorities tackle budget woes in several states. The GOP efforts have sparked huge protests from unions and their supporters and led Democrats in Wisconsin and Indiana to flee their states to block measures.

Republicans in Ohio offered a small concession on Wednesday, saying they would support allowing unionized state workers to collectively bargain on wages — but not for benefits, sick time, vacation or other conditions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal also would allow most public workers to collectively bargain only for wages.

In Ohio, Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus denied protests have dented the GOP's resolve, saying lawmakers decided to make the change after listening to hours of testimony. He said he still believes the bill's core purpose — reining in spending by allowing governments more flexibility in dealing with their workers — is intact.

Senate Democratic Leader Capri Cafaro called the changes "window dressing." She said the entire bill should be scrapped.

"We can't grow Ohio's economy by destroying jobs and attacking the middle class," Cafaro said. "Public employees in Ohio didn't cause our budget problems and they shouldn't be blamed for something that's not their fault."

Wisconsin Democrats have echoed Cafaro for days, but Walker has refused to waver.

Republicans control both the Assembly and the Senate, and Walker says he has the votes to approve the bill. Senate Democrats fled the state last week and have refused to return to the Capitol, preventing Republicans from advancing the measure in that chamber.

Walker reiterated Wednesday that public workers must make concessions to avoid thousands of government layoffs as the state grapples with a $137 million shortfall in its current budget and a projected $3.6 billion hole in the next two-year budget.

With the Wisconsin Senate paralyzed, the Assembly took up the measure late Tuesday morning, but a Democratic filibuster has stalled a vote. Aside from a few short breaks, the session had gone on for nearly 40 hours by early Thursday morning.

As protesters set up sleeping bags and air mattresses in the Capitol rotunda late Wednesday, Democrats threw out dozens of amendments, each one marked by numerous rambling speeches. The body spent more than an hour on a group of about 20 amendments, each one exempting prison guards at a different state facility. Republicans let the Democrats have their say, then tabled each amendment.

Exhausted lawmakers limped around the chamber, rubbed their eyes and yawned as the night dragged on.

Around midnight, Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, accused Democrats of putting on a show for the protesters. Democrats leapt up and started shouting.

"I'm sorry if democracy is a little inconvenient and you had to stay up two nights in a row," Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said. "Is this inconvenient? Hell, yeah! It's inconvenient. But we're going to be heard!"

The Ohio and Wisconsin bills both would strip public workers at all levels of their right to collectively bargain benefits, sick time, vacations and other work conditions. Wisconsin's measure exempts local police, firefighters and the State Patrol and still lets workers collectively bargain their wages. It also would require public workers to pay more toward their pensions and health insurance. Ohio's bill, until Wednesday, would have barred negotiations on wages.

Ohio's measure sits in a Senate committee. No vote has been scheduled on the plan, but thousands of protesters have gathered at the Statehouse to demonstrate, just as in Wisconsin.

In Indiana, Democrats successfully killed a Republican bill that would have prohibited union membership from being a condition of employment by leaving the state on Tuesday. They remained in Illinois in hopes of derailing other parts of Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels' agenda, including restrictions on teacher collective bargaining.

And in Oklahoma, a Republican-controlled state House committee on Wednesday narrowly approved legislation to repeal collective bargaining rights for municipal workers in that state's 13 largest cities.

___

Associated Press writers Scott Bauer and Ryan J. Foley in Madison and Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.

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