The Lesson of Ohio Might Not Be What You Think

The Wall Street Journal recently featured a very short, very striking piece on the defeat of much-needed limits on the power of government unions in Ohio.  The conventional wisdom on the Ohio situation—exemplified yesterday in a chest-thumping op-ed by the president of the PSEA—is that these unions have so much money that they’re unbeatable, and so politicians should simply knuckle under to their disastrous, government-growing agenda.  And given Pennsylvania’s political culture and history, any argument to do less (or nothing) is going to have an audience here.  But the WSJ writer, Allysia Finley, says otherwise:

Most Republicans are attributing the defeat of Ohio’s collective bargaining reforms this week to a gusher of union spending, but the law might have withstood labor’s barrage had Republicans maintained a united front.

From the outset, when a GOP state senator first proposed the reforms last winter, Republicans in Ohio were divided over the law. Gov. John Kasich stayed on the sidelines and didn’t meddle in the legislature’s business. The reforms barely passed the state senate, 17-16, with six Republicans opposed. Five state house Republicans also voted against the bill. “This is a fundamentally rigged process,” said state Sen. Bill Seitz, who demanded that the law be repealed.

By contrast, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had taken ownership of his collective bargaining reforms, which received nearly universal support from Republican lawmakers. Mr. Walker had also proposed less sweeping reforms, which exempted public safety employees, in part to ensure party unity.

Soon after the law passed, Ohio unions initiated a referendum campaign. Gov. Kasich tried to head off the referendum in August by telling the unions that he was willing to strike a compromise on the reforms, ostensibly in return for their dropping the referendum. The unions balked and used the governor’s retreat to bolster their case. “We’re glad that Gov. John Kasich and the other politicians who passed SB 5 are finally admitting this is a flawed bill,” said the referendum’s spokesperson Melissa Fazekas. Meanwhile, many Ohio state lawmakers continued to grumble that the governor had gone too far. The state’s popular conservative talk-radio host, Bill Cunningham, also scored the governor for not negotiating with the unions prior to signing the law and urged listeners to overturn the law.

One lesson from the Ohio rout is that Republican governors should take ownership of reforms rather than allow state lawmakers to take charge. Another is to prepare and rally the troops before waging a major offensive. Ohio Republican lawmakers were ill-equipped to counter labor’s attacks. Making matters worse, they were betrayed by some in their own ranks. The governor took on a war he wasn’t prepared to fight and paid the price. Unfortunately, the biggest casualty may be taxpayers who would have benefited from the reforms.

Or to give you the shorter version, the lesson of Ohio is that Pennsylvania politicians need to show more courage, not less.

Why?  Because government union bosses seize upon backbiting and buck-passing.  That’s how they won in Ohio, and the lack of it is how taxpayers—including teachers whose jobs were saved—won in Wisconsin.