Stewart Refuses a Position on Ohio Bill to End Collective Bargaining
On the eve of a final committee hearing on Ohio Senate Bill 5 (SB-5), State Sen. Jimmy Stewart met with more than 30 public school teachers, university professors and union representatives at West Elementary School Monday to discuss the controversial bill that would end collective bargaining rights for public employees.
For more than an hour he defended Republican plans to amend the bill, but refused to say whether or not he would vote for it if it passed out of the Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee Tuesday.
Collective bargaining is the process of negotiations between a union and an employer over employee wages, benefits and workplace safety. The bill would affect more than 350 thousand public employees.
“Like any other bill, this bill has some significant changes that are coming,” said Stewart Monday of SB-5.
The original bill, introduced by Republican State Sen. Shannon Jones Feb. 1 in order to help reduce Ohio’s $8 billion deficit, completely banned collective bargaining for public employees. Since then, Republicans in the Ohio Senate have said that they will amend the bill Tuesday to allow public employees to bargain for wages and workplace conditions — a concession Stewart said he pushed for.
“I do not support complete repeal of collective bargaining for public sector employees or private sector employees. I’ve made that clear in the past,” he said.
However, the amended bill would still end collective bargaining over benefits. This would include health insurance and require workers to pay at least 20 percent of the cost of their plans, an issue that concerned some at the meeting who feared they would lose their homes as a result of the change.
Beth Shrivers, a special education teacher at Plains Elementary School, said that between her and her husband who is also a public employee, they could have to pay up to an additional $13 thousand per year in order to make up the difference.
Stewart said that collective agreements, which included health insurance and had already been negotiated, would still apply. He added that cost concerns would be addressed by offering a cheaper, statewide insurance plan for public employees, but did not say when a plan would be introduced to the Ohio Assembly.
Shrivers also expressed concern that SB-5 would reduce sick pay for teachers.
Stewart told Shrivers that the bill’s sponsor had said that sick-leave policies would still be negotiable. The legislativesummary of SB-5 says that the bill would abolish the state-mandated 15 days of paid sick-leave and instead leave the policy to school boards to decide.
Stewart only briefly touched on public employees’ rights to strike and the binding arbitration often used to settle collective agreement disputes.
He said, concerning a possible ban on public employee strikes, “I don’t know how that’s going to turn out for sure.”
Of binding arbitration, he said it had “not been resolved.”
However, Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus’ office indicated last week that the bill would include a ban on strikes at the local and state level and also end binding arbitration.
Stewart said the bill’s overall purpose was to give state and district administrators greater flexibility in dealing directly with the budget crisis, but he did not say specifically that he would vote for it.
Although Stewart’s visit to West Elementary lasted an hour, not everyone was satisfied with what they heard Monday.
Michelle Majkrzak-Abdella, President of the Local 1846 branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME), which is composed of 150 members, said she was most concerned that SB-5 would still take away bargaining rights to sick leave and health insurance.
Speaking on behalf of her members, who are local custodians, bus-drivers and school aids, she said, “I don’t know how they could conceive that we could fit into health care pools with folks that make $10 to $15 thousand more than us.” She added, “It is morally unfair to our members.”
Her and John Pugh, President of the Athens Education Associate and a physical education teacher at West Elementary, both thought the bill was politically motivated rather than a serious attempt at addressing Ohio’s budget crisis.
“It gives the [Kasich] administration too much power and doesn’t give us any real bargaining rights. It tells them they can do whatever they want in the district,” said Pugh, who added that he did not blame Stewart for SB-5. “Stewart has been a big supporter of [education] for years.”
Democratic Party supporters and union members from across the state, including some from AFSCME Local 1846, have planned massive protests at the Ohio Statehouse to coincide with the Insurance Committee’s final hearing on SB-5 Tuesday morning.