For weeks, the nation's attention has been drawn to the storm in Madison over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to limit the power of government unions. Yet 500 miles to the southeast, in Columbus, Ohio, Gov. John Kasich is on the verge of passing a more extensive reform.
Under the Ohio bill, government workers can only bargain for pay increases based on merit and performance, not years of service. Wisconsin's law allows workers to negotiate wage increases on seniority, but it limits increases to inflation. Anything more would require voter approval.
Ohio would limit bargaining on health insurance and reduce sick leave and holidays to what's allowed for nonunion government employees. Wisconsin has no similar provision.
Public employees in Ohio wouldn't be able to negotiate on hours, discipline issues, transfers, equipment and outsourcing of services, staffing levels, and teacher-student ratios—all areas Wisconsin's law doesn't address. Police, firefighters and other public safety personnel would be covered by Ohio's law. They are exempt in Wisconsin.
Ohio also ends binding arbitration to settle contract disputes. Unions like arbitration because it takes power away from elected legislatures, city councils and country commissions. Wisconsin allows binding arbitration for local and county employees.
Finally, Ohio would broaden its current ban on strikes by police and firefighters to cover all government workers—as is already the case in Wisconsin.
Both sets of reforms give local and state governments flexibility to deal with budget shortfalls and looming deficits, rein in unfunded pension liabilities, return control of personnel policies to elected officials, and end counterproductive workplace practices demanded by unions. Yet all in all, labor law experts consider Ohio's new law stronger, broader and more wide-ranging than Wisconsin's.
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Why then so much attention to events in the Badger State and so little to those in the Buckeye State? The most likely reason is that legislation began moving in Wisconsin first. Once the media had deployed to Madison, they didn't have reporters, cameramen and television time to open a second front in Columbus. It was also costly for unions to bus in protesters and put on rallies in Madison. Similar protests in Columbus would have drawn much less attention while doubling expenses.
Wisconsin has a longer, larger and apparently louder tradition of liberal and union activism than does Ohio. While both state capitals are more liberal than the rest of their states, Dane County, Wis., went for Mr. Obama with 73% while Franklin County, Ohio gave him 59%. And the University of Wisconsin-Madison is more liberal than The Ohio State University in Columbus, making it easier to recruit college-student demonstrators.
Finally, the rules of Wisconsin's legislature require a supermajority of members to be present for votes on spending bills, allowing the state Senate Democratic minority to temporarily halt legislative action by high-tailing it for Illinois. Mr. Walker removed the labor union provisions from the spending bill, allowing it to move forward in spite of the Democratic legislators' absence. The Ohio legislature can pass a bill with a simple majority of legislators present.
By taking on the tough fight first, Wisconsin's governor drew fire away from similar reform efforts in Ohio, as well as Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Tennessee and other states. For that, many governors, state legislatures—and taxpayers—are in Scott Walker's debt.
That may be cold comfort to Wisconsin's young reformist governor. He has been vilified by mobs, had his family threatened, and had his policies distorted by President Barack Obama—all because he was the governor of a state where the labor movement decided to make something of a last stand.
But the union movement has been bleeding members for decades, and its appeal is dimming. In a March 11 poll, Gallup asked "what word or phrase comes to mind when you think of labor unions?" Thirty-four percent said "positive," 38% said "negative." Overall, Gallup said, this was a "less positive picture" than it found last summer—when approval of unions dipped to the second-lowest level since 1930. Unions have become just another unpopular special-interest group.
In attempting to re-energize itself by battling in Madison, the labor movement is making itself appear weaker and more thuggish than before. Scott Walker didn't expect this fight, but he is winning it. He absorbed body blows in the process, as strong and effective leaders do. The lasting damage has not been done to Mr. Walker but to the labor movement, whose desperation grows as its power, numbers and reputation wane.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, March 23, 2011.