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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - An Ohio state Senate panel voted on Wednesday to strip public sector unions of some collective bargaining rights and end their right to strike, in the latest swipe at the power of unions by a state.
The Senate Labor Committee vote was 7-5, with one Republican and four Democrats voting against. The measure now moves to the Republican-controlled state Senate, which could approve it as early as Wednesday.
If endorsed by the state legislature and signed by Republican Governor John Kasich, Ohio would become the biggest state so far to enact sweeping restrictions on public sector unions.
While Wisconsin has gained far more national attention, the Ohio measure is tougher in areas such as eliminating the right to strike. Ohio also is far more important to the union movement than Wisconsin, with the sixth largest number of public sector union members among states, twice the number in Wisconsin.
What began three weeks ago as a dispute between a newly-elected Republican governor and labor unions in Wisconsin, has blown up into what could be the biggest challenge to labor union power since then President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
The Ohio proposal also eliminates binding arbitration of contract disputes by a neutral third party -- instead leaving the final decision to the legislative body.
"I believe public employees should be evaluated solely on their performance," said Republican State Senator Shannon Jones, the bill's sponsor.
Democrats said this is unfair, since it gives the ultimate decision to the employer. The bill also establishes merit as the only basis for pay increases, not length of service.
Republicans in Ohio said the limits to public workers' ability to bargain are necessary to give local governments flexibility and help reduce the state's two-year budget deficit of about $8 billion.
More than 8,000 protesters converged on Ohio's state capital on Tuesday to demonstrate against the proposed legislation, which would affect workers including public school teachers, firefighters and police.
At a news conference with Democrats Wednesday afternoon, representatives of fire and police unions complained that the bill would take away their ability to bargain for safety equipment, such as bullet-proof vests.
"This bill provides for our safety to be contracted out to the lowest bidder," said Jay McDonald of the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police.
The proposal approved by the committee on Wednesday was watered down from the original Republican plan. That proposal would have eliminated collective bargaining for 42,000 state workers, plus 19,500 workers in the state's university and college system. It also would have removed health care and some other benefits from the negotiating process for teachers, firefighters and police.
What emerged from the committee on Wednesday would offer only limited collective bargaining rights for wages based on performance and some benefits, but take away the right to strike for all public workers. Firefighters and police already are banned from striking. Collective bargaining would not be allowed on numerous issues, including transfers, hours and working conditions.
The limits on collective bargaining are similar to a proposal stalled in the Wisconsin state legislature but Wisconsin would not eliminate the right to strike.
Democratic senators in Wisconsin have stalled the proposal there by leaving the state to prevent Republicans from having a quorum.
Several other states also are considering union restrictions including Indiana, Tennessee, Idaho and Kansas.
Ohio only requires a simple majority to vote on bills, so it would do the Ohio Democrats no good to leave the state.
Editing by Jerry Norton and Greg McCune