Governor Kasich has miraculously transformed a union concession into an illegitimate luxury. Kasich and the Republican Party have convinced a majority of the Ohio government that binding arbitration is an unaffordable extravagance, rather than an already weakened remnant of collective bargaining rights.
During WWII, labor organizations voluntarily surrendered the right to strike. Because striking would shut down essential war-time production, workers accepted the compromise of binding arbitration in place of the right to strike during the war years. Employers and workers both understood that binding arbitration was a compromise between workers’ rights and national needs.
Binding arbitration is a far less effective alternative to a union strike. Under binding arbitration, unions and management agree to submit grievances that they cannot resolve to an independent arbitrator. Today, even this compromise, which weakened the fundamental right to strike for better wages and working conditions, is becoming a relic of the past.
Striking — flexing workers’ fundamental power to stop working — has also become a rarity in recent decades. Workers once could and would strike if management violated a union contract or in order to negotiate a better contract. Today, most public sector union contracts have a no-strike clause; strikes can only occur once a contract has expired. As an alternative, binding arbitration is written into most public sector union contracts. While still providing a mechanism to obtain a hearing for grievances, binding arbitration has given unions a far less effective method of challenging unfair management.
On March 31, Governor Kasich signed Senate Bill 5 into law, effectively banning the use of independent arbitrators. Under binding arbitration rules, union reps and management submit unresolved grievances to an independent arbitrator, and the arbitrator’s ruling is binding for both parties. Today, even the right to present union grievances to an independent arbitrator has been jettisoned. Under the new bill, when public sector unions and management cannot reach a settlement, grievances must be submitted to a “legislative body.” Instead of having an independent arbitrator, the “legislative body” issues the final decision. However, an elected or appointed board is by definition not an “independent” body, and yet in many cases, this legislative body is the counterpart of the union that is bringing the grievance. For a public institution of higher education, the “legislative body” is the university’s board of trustees. For a hospital, the “legislative body” is the hospital’s board of trustees. And for any state “agency, authority, commission or board of the state,” this “legislative body” is the controlling board.
The Ohio Republican party believes that local legislative bodies, like school boards, should decide whether or not a grievance is legitimate. Under this new system, if you are an underpaid teacher in a high school, the school board — your counterpart when you file a grievance — will decide the grievance’s merits. If you are a female police officer receiving less pay than your male counterparts, your superiors at the police station will not only argue against your position, but also issue the final decision. In essence, management can now deny a union grievance and decide the final verdict simultaneously.
In defense of S.B. 5, Governor Kasich argues that the taxpayer should hold budgetary power. In an e-mail to his supporters, Kasich wrote that this act “strips power from the union leaders and returns it to the taxpayers and workers.” Ohio, he explained, faces too deep a financial crisis to allow government employees to have bargaining rights over salaries and working conditions. Yet in such a scheme, the stakes are stacked against workers: When facing severe budget cuts from the state government, a local board or agency will rarely grant their workers an increase in pay. In essence, the government has switched the burden of the budget crisis onto local school boards and county agencies, rather than actively working to decrease the deficit.
Instead of mending Ohio’s budget, Governor Kasich is using the economic depression as “objective” evidence for his crusade against unions. Furthermore, there are far better alternatives to what Kasich has wrought: The government could, for example, increase the state budget through higher taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations, allowing for higher public sector wages. Rather than raise money through taxes statewide, S.B. 5’s removal of independent arbitration will force cash-strapped local boards and agencies to decide grievances on the basis not of their merits but of “which verdict costs less.”
In the early 20th century, unions fought for the right to strike against unfair management practices: They could refuse to work until they were granted livable wages, safer working conditions or reasonable hours. Governor Kasich’s government has destroyed independent arbitration, and with it, the worker’s ability to collectively demand just working conditions and wages.
While Kasich may have saved the state government a paltry sum in the short run, Ohio will quickly feel the detrimental effects of this new bill as public sector workers leave the state for fairer working conditions elsewhere.