November 9, 2011 / 2:11 AM / 8 years ago

Ohio voters soundly defeat effort to curb unions

COLUMBUS (Reuters) - Ohio voters on Tuesday rejected a law limiting the collective bargaining rights of public workers in a major victory for organized labor and a defeat for the Republicans who backed the measure.

Firefighters Thomas Eickelberger (L) and Todd Schlenk work at a phone bank urging voters to vote against a bill that limits collective bargaining rights for public safety in Hamilton, Ohio, October 20, 2011. REUTERS/Mary Wisniewski

The vote was watched closely across the country for indications of union strength in the key swing state heading into the presidential race in 2012. Unions are one of President Obama’s key constituencies heading into next year’s campaign.

With 81.6 percent of the precincts reporting, 60.6 percent of voters had rejected the law, while 39.4 percent supported it, according to the Ohio Secretary of State’s website.

Republican Gov. John Kasich, who supported the union curbs, conceded on Tuesday. He said the result “requires me to take a deep breath and to reflect on what happened here.”

Kasich, who championed the union measure as a way for cities and municipalities to balance their budgets, said he would “listen carefully to what local governments say they want ... Whatever relief they might need, we will do what we can.”

But he warned: “Local government cannot expect a bail out from the state. There is no money for that.”

Ohio’s Republican-dominated assembly passed the law last spring. But it was put on hold after 1.3 million voters signed petitions to put it on the November ballot.

The curbs, which were more sweeping than a law passed in Wisconsin, would have eliminated binding arbitration and banned strikes for public sector unions like teachers, police and firefighters.

John Hoell, a 57-year-old teacher in Columbus, said he knew Tuesday’s victory would not end Republican efforts to get public workers to make compromises to help address the state’s fiscal problems.

“Certain things have to change,” Hoell said. “But we want to be able to negotiate that. We’re not spoiled little kids. We’re adults.”

Ohio is a key to the 2012 re-election hopes of President Barack Obama, a Democrat with strong labor union support. Obama’s efforts to save the U.S. auto industry benefited many of the auto plants in the state.

Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California, Berkeley, said Tuesday’s victory for organized labor “could mean a critical victory a year from now in the presidential race.

“The irony is the governor, by attempting to gut labor, may have strengthened it throughout the state,” he said.

But Ohio voters on Tuesday did not send a sweeping message backing Obama. They also approved by a nearly 2-to-1 margin a proposed constitutional amendment that would exempt state residents from the mandates connected to the signature health care reforms that President Obama signed into law.

With nearly 60 percent of precincts reporting, 65 percent of voters supporting opting out of the health care mandates, while 35 percent rejected the idea.

Ohio is also home to Republican U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, one of the strongest critics of Obama’s health care reforms in Congress.

Additional reporting by Jo Ingles, Joe Wessels and Jim Leckrone; Editing by James B. Kelleher and Jerry Norton

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