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Ohio Teachers at Center of Battle Over Union Rights

Teachers are becoming the focus of an intensifying battle over a controversial Ohio bill designed to help resolve an $8 billion budget deficit by curbing union negotiating powers.

Ohio Senate Bill 5 would prohibit state employees, including public school employees as well as emergency services personnel and others, from collectively bargaining for wages and benefits. The goal, Republican lawmakers say, is to give state and local governments more discretion in setting pay scales and managing workforce needs to improve their bottom line.

“The actual process of collective bargaining--having a group of people come to the table to negotiate--is not the problem,” Ohio State Senator Kevin Bacon, a Republican, said in an interview with Fox News. “The problem is the collective bargaining statute in the state of Ohio right now, which starts to add in certain requirements, certain hindrances that allow the... local or state budgets to blossom to a point where you can never reverse [the expansion] even in a time of fiscal crisis.”

As chairman of the Ohio Senate Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee, Bacon has overseen dozens of hours of hearings and testimony on SB-5, which he says have been essential to improving the bill for both sides.

Bruce Johnson, president of the Interuniversity Council of Ohio, which represents Ohio’s public universities and medical schools, agrees that employer flexibility is key to keeping costs under control.

“We think the universities need to be flexible from a management perspective particularly in tough budget times--and we're definitely going through those. So as the state faces a budget crisis, universities will face challenges as well, and they need as much flexibility as possible to address those challenges,” Johnson said.

But opponents argue the proposal strikes at the core of the rights of workers who are essential to the functioning of a civil society.

“Teaching runs in [my blood]. It's a calling, it's a profession. It's not what I do, it's who I am,” Philip Hays, an Ohio schoolteacher and teachers’ union member, told Fox News. “I think that the more than 300,000 education professionals are in their jobs because it's who they are, not what they do. It's not a job, it's not a career, it's a calling.”

Hays argued that the bill takes aim at unions that advocate on his behalf so that he can advocate for his students and that without that bargaining ability, his pupils would undoubtedly suffer.

“All of Ohio is starting to understand that we have a valid point, that this bill unfairly targets our students and their right to a quality education that would allow them to get a good job and compete in the global economy,” Hays added.

Carol Bowshier, chief of staff of the Ohio Civil Service Employee Association, echoed those sentiments.

“The fact is we could lay off every state worker in Ohio--every police officer, every fire fighter, every corrections officer--and we would only close one quarter of the $8 billion gap,” Bowshier said. “So trying to balance the budget on the backs of the public employees simply will not work.”

Republican Ohio State Senator Keith Faber told Fox News he “bristles” at the accusation some opponents levy that the bill targets certain essential public workers.

“I come from a family with a very strong public service ethic and value,” Faber said.

“I don't view this as picking on anyone or attacking anybody in particular... I view this as trying to level the playing field and restructure the way state government works, and when we do that, we have to make sure we're able to put benefits and pay structures on the table that the taxpayers can afford.”

Lawmakers say even if union bargaining abilities are restricted, public employees’ rights are not in danger thanks to decades-old laws protecting civil service workers.

“The bottom line is we still have civil service protection laws here in Ohio on the county local and state levels, so you have layers of protection… that exist irrespective of collective bargaining,” Bacon said.

Opponents of the collective bargaining bill braved deteriorating weather conditions Tuesday afternoon to demonstrate outside the state house in Columbus. Committee hearings are set to continue this week with a full Senate vote yet to be scheduled.