Lawmakers push right-to-work for 2020 ballot

“Right-to-work” legislation, known by opponents as “union-busting” or “anti-worker,” is back in Ohio.

But like prior attempts to limit funding and membership in public- and private-sector unions, this latest round of free market resolutions appears to lack enough votes in the Republican-controlled Statehouse, especially when half of Ohio’s senators and the entire House are up for re-election this year.

Rep. John Becker, a Clermont County Republican, proposed similar reforms in 2016 when his House Bill 53 failed to gain momentum. The legislation would have banned unions from taking dues out of paychecks or representing nonmembers in labor disputes with bosses. Becker’s current proposals, which go further by also outlawing requirements that contractors pay higher wages on publicly funded projects, could put a menu of collective bargaining rights up for a public vote.

Becker and Rep. Craig Riedel, R-Defiance, introduced House Joint Resolutions 7 through 12 before the winter holiday break. Each resolution would chip away at organized labor, a move that conservatives say appeals to CEOs seeking to control payroll costs.

Slim chance

The proposals could each appear on the Nov. 3, 2020, ballot, adding a polarizing dynamic to Ohio’s next presidential election. But that’s a long shot.

First, House leadership would have to move them out of committee for a floor vote. Speaker Cliff Rosenberger’s office is reviewing the six ballot resolutions, saying that “the issue of right-to-work has been brought forward numerous times in recent years, and it always generates an important and interesting discussion amongst the caucus.”

Last year, Becker’s House Bill 53 — with more sponsors than the current plan — died in the finance committee. That powerful committee remains chaired by Rep. Ryan Smith, a Galia County Republican who may challenge Rep. Larry Householder, R-Perry County, to be the next speaker. Some conservative colleagues consider Householder friendlier to labor than Smith, which doesn’t bode well for the right-to-work agenda.

Should the proposed ballot issues make it to the House floor, a supermajority passage of three-fifths is required. The process repeats for the Senate.

Then, Gov. John Kasich would have to sign the resolutions. That’s unlikely as the term-limited Kasich has said taking on unions is “not on my agenda,” especially after signing the union-trimming Senate Bill 5 in 2011 only to watch 62 percent of Ohioans veto his signature eight months later at the polls.

Labor vs. CEOs

The recent ballot proposals would be a win for pro-business conservatives.

They would limit new union enrollees, exacerbating an overall decline in membership since 1983 as steep losses in the private sector have erased moderate gains on the public-sector side. Mayors would be prohibited from requiring prevailing wages for workers on public projects. Tax incentives and contracts could not be awarded based on whether the work is done by union labor. One resolution would require annual elections for union bosses (which is standard in some labor organizations). Another seeks to outlaw the deduction of union dues from paychecks.

There’s little consensus among researchers on whether these polarizing measures drive up, down or have any impact on wages and job growth. Think tanks and economists lean left or right on the issue, often releasing conflicting reports that suggest unions improve working conditions and boost wages but scare off employers.

“Because right-to-work laws lower wages and benefits, weaken workplace protections and decrease the likelihood that employers will be required to negotiate with their employees, they are advanced as a strategy for attracting new businesses to a state,” writes researchers with the Economic Policy Institute, which says it is nonpartisan. “EPI research shows that right-to-work laws do not have any positive impact on job growth.”

A 2015 EPI report, which attempted to adjust for cost of living and other differences that vary from state to state, found that wages under right-to-work laws were 16 percent lower. But proponents note that companies and executives prefer to do business in states where union rights are less protected by state law.

“At the end of the day it’s those CEOs who are making the decisions on where to locate their businesses and whether to hire employees. Their opinions matter,” said Rep. Kristina Roegner, a Hudson Republican and one of nine lawmakers to co-sponsor the right-to-work ballot proposals, though she thinks them “largely symbolic” and not likely to pass. Roegner, a 2018 candidate for state Senate, introduced House Bill 163 in 2017 with Riedel to limit, but not eliminate as the ballot issue would, prevailing wage requirements on public projects. With half of all House Republicans and Speaker Rosenberger on board, Roegner’s bill has a decent chance of passing.

Conservative politicians and institutions, from Becker to the Heritage Foundation, also argue that right-to-work rules do not prohibit unions, only obligatory membership. Opponents lament the negative impact on workers’ rights.

28 and counting

The nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures says nine states have right-to-work amendments in their constitutions. Ohio could be No. 10 in 2020.

Ohio’s Senate Bill 5 never became effective in the few months between lawmakers passing and the public repealing it. Today, 28 states have right-to-work laws — more than half (16) from legislation passed between 1943 and 1955 in sharp response to the post-World War II labor strikes of 1945 and 1946.

Since 2012, though, right-to-work has made a sweeping comeback, becoming law in seven states, including neighboring Kentucky and West Virginia. More states have adopted right-to-work in the past five years than the six decades before them. Conservatives in Ohio look optimistically on the recent spate of Republican-controlled statehouses favoring not labor but employers who promise work and jobs to states with the least restrictive hiring requirements.

“I’ve seen states moving toward right-to-work and you wonder why,” said Roegner.

In an annual Chief Executive ranking of the best states to do business, the states that CEOs prefer to Ohio are all right-to-work. So too are some of the states that rank lower than Ohio, which has jumped from 22nd to 11th best since 2004.

Lawmakers like Roegner pay attention when 78 percent of CEOs surveyed this year said they either prefer or require to operate in business climates with right-to-work rules.

“The work we’ve done has helped, all the regulatory work and tax reform has helped. So we have moved up. But I want Ohio to be No. 1,” said Roegner, who doesn’t “benchmark states that are behind us” — 18 of which have right-to-work rules.