Tuesday elections show labor still a force
Wednesday, November 9th, 2011
While off-year elections rarely garner headlines, national attention had been drawn to yesterday's vote on Issue 2 in Ohio. The measure sought to repeal State Bill 5, passed with Republican support in March, which prohibited striking by public employees and limited the subjects of collective bargaining for public employees. Labor unions in the state led the charge to collect nearly 1.3 million signatures to force a referendum vote on the law. Yesterday, more than 61 percent of Ohioans voted against SB 5.
SB 5 was heavily promoted by first-year Republican governor John Kasich as a necessary measure to give more cost-cutting power to local jurisdictions and save the state money. Ohio faces an $8 billion budget deficit, and Governor Kasich has vowed that there will be no new state taxes. Opponents of the law accused Kasich of “union-busting” and attacking the right to collective bargaining.
Today’s Cleveland Plain-Dealer considers what the repeal vote means for the state GOP agenda and Kasich, who made changing collective bargaining rights a campaign promise.
While the Ohio vote received more attention, labor was also on the ballot in San Francisco. Voters were presented with two competing measures for public employee pension reform. Both Propositions C and D would have required city employees to contribute more to their pension plans, in an attempt to close the city’s $306 million budget deficit.
Both proposals increase workers' contributions to the pension plan. Proposition D, which required a higher contribution, was pushed by Public Defender Jeff Adachi, a mayoral candidate who was also responsible for placing pension reform on last year’s ballot. Proposition C was developed and promoted by labor unions and interim Mayor Edwin Lee, who won election Tuesday. Proposition C won 69 percent to 31 percent. Proposition D was defeated with 66 percent voting in opposition.
“It’s a subdued party because there was a certain amount of confidence already that our message was resonating with voters,” said Thomas O’Connor, the head of the city firefighters’ union.
And also because of this: city employees will be contributing between 7.5 percent and 13.5 percent of their salaries to their pensions. The increased contributions will save the city $1.3 billion over the next decade.
“This is a victory, but it’s a hollow victory because we're giving a huge chunk of our paychecks to the pension fund,” said O’Connor. “We know we're doing the right thing, but it’s a hardship.”
Meanwhile, Adachi, whose lonely campaign last year brought attention to the $4.4 billion the city will owe in retirement payments over the next decade, said he was pleased that San Francisco had at least done something to help erase part of the looming bill. His measure would have saved the city $1.7 billion over the next 10 years.
“It's a very small step, and the downside is that people may think the pension problem is solved when it's not,” said Adachi, who also ran for mayor. “Last year we were arguing about whether or not there should be any pension reform at all, this year we had two pension reform measures. That's progress and that's leadership.”
As states try to erase deficits, public employee benefits have become a popular target for Republicans emboldened by gains in last November's elections. Democrats and labor groups have framed the struggle as an ideological attack on collective bargaining.
Overall participation in labor unions has steadily declined since 1983 but public employees represent a significantly larger share of union membership. Recent studies have tied the decline in union participation to an increase in income inequality.