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February 25, 2011

Ohio anti-union bill could harm DP benefits

Measure also includes yet another marriage ban

Columbus--Around 5,200 protesters gathered at the Ohio Statehouse on February 22, urging lawmakers not to pass a union-busting bill that could eviscerate domestic partner benefits for public employees, including faculty and staff at public universities.

Senate Bill 5 mirrors legislation in Wisconsin that has drawn tens of thousands of protesters and caused the out-of-state flight of the entire Democratic caucus of the state senate. The bill cannot pass through the Wisconsin senate without a quorum, which cannot be achieved without the Democrats.

Among the protesters at the Columbus rally was a contingent from Equality Ohio, which sent out an email blast about the protest.

According to the LGBT political group’s new executive director Ed Mullen, the bill could devastate domestic partner benefits in the state. With its elimination of collective bargaining for public employees, their unions would be unable to press for the benefits.

“The bill is long and complicated, and all of the implications of the bill are not known right now, but what is clear is that very hard-fought and hard-won benefits for same-sex couples could potentially be stripped away if this bill is passed,” Mullen said.

Marriage ban, again

Mullen said that, in addition to the neutering of unions, there is an additional insult in the bill--language reiterating that marriage in Ohio is between one man and one woman.

“Our status as second-class citizens is so entrenched in this state that the fact we shouldn’t blink when they restate that we’re second-class citizens is disheartening,” he said.

Although it is a slap in the face to the LGBT community, the language would not do anything. Both state law and a 2004 constitutional amendment already define marriage in Ohio as an opposite-sex institution.

Currently, eight public universities in Ohio offer domestic partner benefits to employees: Bowling Green, the universities of Cincinnati and Toledo, Miami University, Ohio University, Ohio State University, Youngstown State and Cleveland State.

“My understanding is, yes, they are considered public employees under this bill,” Mullen noted. “Akron University has their union web presence talking about that, how this bill will actually take away their domestic partnership benefits.”

“Domestic partner benefits will be at the whim of the university, and possibly on an individual basis instead of a policy basis,” he continued. “Potentially all universities could decide to keep domestic partnership benefits because they think it’s right, or necessary to recruit and retain the best employees.”

However, in another year of threatened budget cuts, short-term economies might overshadow the long-term recruiting and retention benefits.

In both Wisconsin and Ohio, public employee unions have agreed to major legislative demands, like transparency in negotiation, increased employee contributions to pension and health care and other provisions, but Republican legislators are keeping to a hard line on the elimination of collective bargaining and binding arbitration, which would leave employees completely at the mercy of their employers.

Without collective bargaining, a city could actually eliminate pensions and health care benefits for its employees. It is unlikely to happen, as most employees would probably flee to more generous employers, but it is a possible worst-case scenario.

And without the unions’ ability to fight for their members, it would fall to community organizations like Equality Ohio to do so, which would take resources away from other battles.

“Without the collective bargaining agreements, we would have to spend our time and energy to make sure public employees across the state have domestic partner benefits, and that will take momentum away from other forward advances we could be making,” Mullen said, noting that the executive director of Wisconsin’s LGBT equality organization spoke out against his state’s bill on MSNBC earlier this week.

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