By Carol Biliczky
Beacon Journal staff writer
State Sen. Tom Sawyer isn't packing his bags to leave town like his colleagues in Wisconsin and Indiana did. Frankly, he doesn't think it would do any good.
The Akron resident is one of only four Democrats on the 12-member Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee that will vote on a controversial collective bargaining bill as early as Tuesday of next week.
In an interview this week, the longtime legislator and former Akron mayor said he had little clout to derail the measure that would gut the collective bargaining law he helped put in place about 30 years ago.
The bill is a freight train that seems to be gaining speed with every passing day, he said.
''I would have liked to see people come together and take a look at the successes and weaknesses [of the current law] and make adjustments,'' he said.
Instead, ''It's about to be dismantled in a matter of days.''
Similar legislation is pending in neighboring states.
Ohio's proposal by Sen. Shan
non Jones, R-Springboro, challenges union benefits and bargaining powers of 42,000 state employees and 300,000 in county, municipal and township governments and school districts.
Previous GOP administrations didn't even try to thwart unions on this level. But these are different times, said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
With the state facing a deficit of up to $8 billion in the next two-year budget and the GOP firmly in power and leaning more to the right than in the past, change is in the air.
''Republicans see a chance to make some changes in the law,'' Green said. ''Gov. [John] Kasich is very serious about having to balance the budget.''
But even Green is unable to determine if the bill would save money or if employees in the public sector are more richly rewarded than those outside of government.
Many jobs in the public sector — police and firefighters, for example — have no direct counterparts in the private sector.
''Even analysts with slightly different assumptions can come up with dramatically different conclusions,'' Green said. ''It is hard to tell which ones make more sense.''
All of it is disheartening for Sawyer, whose district includes Portage County and part of Summit. He said he is one of the relatively few people in state government with institutional memory about the painstaking efforts to assemble the original collective bargaining bill.
Akron makes history
It passed in 1983, the same year he would be elected mayor of Akron. He directed the city's police and fire unions to get a jump on negotiations before the law went into effect in April 1984. That led to Akron having the first two public employee contracts in Ohio under the new law, he said.
In the three years leading up to its enactment, Ohio had 135 public sector strikes, he said, excluding incidents of so-called ''blue flu,'' which is when workers conspire to use sick days at the same time. In the past three years, the state has had five such strikes — evidence in Sawyer's view that the current law works.
He says he tries to make that argument to his fellow senators, who do listen.
''But the truth of the matter is that this comes down to where the votes are,'' he said. ''Those who are in favor of this bill have sufficient votes to pass it without any help from anybody.''
Sawyer has recommended to the committee's ranking minority member, Joe Schiavoni of Canfield, that they introduce a substitute bill that tweaks the original law, but that would be purely symbolic.
Time is short, as senators have only until noon today to offer amendments to Jones' bill.
Sawyer expects the committee to vote on the bill and amendments Tuesday morning. The full Senate — 23 Republicans and 10 Democrats — could act as early as Tuesday afternoon. Seventeen votes are needed for passage.
Then the bill would go to the House of Representatives, led by longtime area legislator William Batchelder, R-Medina.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at 330-996-3729 or firstname.lastname@example.org.