COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — With barely a whimper of the protests that have convulsed Wisconsin, legislation to curb public employee unions is speeding toward passage in Ohio, an even bigger labor stronghold.
Labor experts said the greater tumult in Wisconsin reflects the state's long history of progressive political activism; the Statehouse's location in Madison, the famously liberal home of the University of Wisconsin; and perhaps a feeling of hopelessness among Ohio's working class, which has been hit particularly hard by the recession.
Days of protests in Columbus haven't added up to the numbers seen in a single day in Madison. The rallies there have topped more than 70,000 people, compared with roughly 8,500 on the largest day of demonstrations at the Ohio Statehouse. When the Ohio bill passed the Senate 17-16 on Wednesday, the crowd was estimated at 450.
“Madison is kind of a perfect storm of factors for this,” said Don Taylor, assistant professor of labor education at the University of Wisconsin School for Workers in Madison. “It's an extremely progressive city in terms of politics. It's one of those places in the country where people will refer to it as a ‘People's Republic.’”
Wisconsin's measure remains in limbo in the GOP-controlled Legislature after the 14 Senate Democrats fled to Illinois two weeks ago to deprive the chamber of a quorum. In Ohio, though, the Republicans hold big enough majorities in both chambers to vote on the bill and pass it even if the Democrats walk out.
Ohio's bill could go to House committee hearings as early as next week. The measure is likely to receive strong support from the full chamber and Republican Gov. John Kasich.
Ohio's bill would restrict the bargaining rights of roughly 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public employees. They would no longer be able to negotiate health care benefits or certain working conditions, and they would be barred from striking.
Wisconsin's measure would affect about 175,000 workers but would exempt police and firefighters. Under the bill, public employees would be allowed to negotiate wages only. And even then, they could not get raises higher than the inflation rate without a public referendum. Wisconsin already outlaws strikes by public employees.
The speed with which the Ohio bill cleared the Senate is energizing Republicans as they push to break what they see as labor's stranglehold on state and local governments, schools and public safety departments.
Political observers at the Ohio Statehouse were flabbergasted by how fast the legislation was moving in a longtime labor stronghold like Ohio. The state has 655,000 union members, who constitute 13.7 percent of the workforce, compared with 335,000 members, or 14.2 percent of the workforce, in Wisconsin, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“For as far-reaching this thing is and how many lives it will affect, I can't believe how fast it moved,” said Columbus Police Sgt. Shaun Laird.
Many union backers were also clearly disappointed by the turnout in Columbus given the high political stakes in Ohio, a political battleground state that decided the 2004 presidential election.
A law undercutting Ohio's unions could kneecap the state's Democratic Party ahead of the 2012 race for the White House by depriving it of a major source of contributions and organizational muscle. Or, as some union members argue, the battle could backfire on the GOP by galvanizing the Democratic Party and its working-class base.
Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said the walkout by the Democrats in Wisconsin slowed down the process there and allowed the opposition to organize. He called what was happening in Ohio “a blitzkrieg.”
Wisconsin was the first state to allow collective bargaining for public employees, in 1959, and is the birthplace of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the nation's largest public employee union.
In Ohio, despite a long union tradition among steel and auto workers, the right to collective bargaining was not extended to state employees until 1983. A Gallup survey released in August showed Ohio with the lowest proportion of government employees in the U.S. — 12 percent of the state's workforce.
Wisconsin's capital, Madison, is more liberal than Columbus. Were Ohio's bill debated in one of its blue-collar bastions — say, Cleveland, Akron or Toledo — the demonstrations might have been far larger, said Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder.
Ohio State University is only a couple of miles from the Ohio Statehouse, but the tens of thousands of students there have played little part in the pro-labor rallies.
By contrast, passionate student demonstrators from the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus in Madison —“up there with Berkeley” in its liberalism, according to Vedder — have been bolstering the Wisconsin fight. The campus is right next to the Capitol.
“There has always been a sympathy for collective approaches to labor problems in Wisconsin, and you don't have that as much in Ohio,” Vedder said. “It doesn't have that same progressive reputation or history.”
John Russo, labor studies professor at Youngstown State University, said the low numbers of people protesting in Ohio reflect the hurt that has been inflicted by the recession in the state, where unemployment is 9.5 percent versus 7.5 percent in Wisconsin.
“There's a sense of hopelessness,” he said. “Some people feel like ‘If we're not going to go anywhere, I'm going to make sure nobody else is going anywhere.’”
Associated Press writer Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.