A proposed Ohio constitutional amendment prohibiting people from having to join a union or pay related fees as a condition of employment won't appear on the ballot until the fall of 2013 at the earliest, but the issue is being discussed in the lead-up to this year's general election.
A group called Ohioans for Workplace Freedom is gathering signatures to place the amendment before voters. They say it's about giving people the freedom to choose whether to join or support labor organizations and increasing economic opportunities in the state. Opponents say it's an attack on unions that will undermine worker protections and could lead to lower wages.
Some have suggested the right-to-work push is a response to last year's repeal by voters of Senate Bill 5, the controversial legislation that would have radically altered collective bargaining for Ohio's public employees. But Chris Littleton, a member of the ballot committee for Ohioans for Workplace Freedom, said this was being discussed before SB5 was on anybody's radar.
The group's petitions have been certified and they're working to collect the 385,253 signatures required to get the right-to-work amendment on the ballot.
Littleton said the amendment was carefully written so it would not end any union or existing union contracts.
"What people really want more than anything is the freedom to choose," he said. "Let it be in the hands of people. Let the people make the decision."
On the Web
Read the text of the proposed amendment and find out more about the group backing it - ohioansforworkplacefreefom.org
A Buckeye Institute report in support of right-to-work laws - www.buckeyeinstitute.org/uploads/files/BUCKEYE-ohio-right-to-work-rev2012-3.pdf
An Economic Policy Institute report in opposition to right-to-work laws - www.epi.org/publication/right-to-work-research/
State Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said that while he's still looking for the best way to accomplish the goal, if the amendment was on the ballot this year, he would vote for it.
"I just don't feel that people should be compelled to pay dues as a condition of employment," he said.
Thompson's wife is a Marietta City Schools teacher who has to pay dues to the local teacher's association. That group is a part of the Ohio Education Association, which ran ads against Thompson in the 2010 election.
His opponent in this year's election, St. Clairsville Democrat Charlie Daniels, opposes the so-called "right to work" concept. He said it isn't needed because nobody is required to join a union. But people who work jobs where employees are covered by unions must pay fees because they still benefit from the union's presence.
"Even though that person's not in the union, they still get the union umbrella in legal protection," Daniels said. "You're going to pay for what you get."
Bill Hutchinson, business manager for the Parkersburg-Marietta Building and Construction Trades Council, said a union needs money to function, so members and non-members must pay in exchange for the benefits they receive, just like with any other organization.
"They're not paying for nothing," he said.
Littleton said the requirement that unions cover non-members is a federal law that state residents can't do anything about.
"It would be up to the individuals to say, 'Do we want to keep this union?'" he said.
Sen. Lou Gentile, D-Steubenville, said at a campaign event last month in Marietta that he would oppose any attempts to make Ohio a right-to-work state, or as he calls it, "right to work less."
Gentile pointed to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, that says right-to-work laws have no effect on states' economies, wages are lower by an average of $1,500 a year in those states and the likelihood of getting health insurance or pensions is decreased. In addition, he said, weakening unions would weaken their ability to negotiate not only for better wages but safer working conditions.
"(Workers') wages, their benefits, their safety could be in danger," he said.
Gentile said he is concerned the amendment would allow employers to hire less-skilled workers at lower wages or take advantage of good workers who aren't union members by paying them less.
"They shouldn't have any less of a safe working condition. They don't deserve any less in wages or benefits," he said.
Gentile's opponent in the November election, Republican Shane Thompson, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Littleton said states without right-to-work laws have higher wages because they tend to be areas that industrialized first, so their wages were rising before unions intervened. But in the last three decades, right-to-work states have produced jobs at a much faster rate, he said.
Hiring employees outside of unions would also give employers more flexibility, Littleton said, as some union contracts limit what jobs a worker can do. Without those restrictions, a company could move a worker to where he or she is needed if part of their business slows down.
The goal of the amendment is not to take away people's right to form unions, Littleton said.
"If the union's providing me something I could not get otherwise, I would happily pay those dues," he said.
Daniels said he believes the goal of right-to-work supporters is to weaken or even eliminate collective bargaining.
"That's the only thing the working class and the middle class have right now," he said.