Time to Talk About John Kasich's Biggest Failure as Ohio Governor: Union Reform

On Friday the West Virginia Senate voted to override Governor Tomblin's veto of a right-to-work bill, making the state one of a majority that protects workers from mandatory union membership. West Virginia joins three other Midwest states—Indiana (2012), Michigan (2013), and Wisconsin (2015)—that have passed workplace freedom laws in the last four years. Conspicuously absent from that list is the state led by presidential candidate and self-proclaimed "conservative reformer" John Kasich, who was stung by a failed union reform attempt in his first term. Ohio's governor gave up and walked away from that fight after he lost the first round to union activists and Ohio is now surrounded by right-to-work states that threaten its tenuous economy.

Back in March of 2011, Kasich signed a sweeping 350-page public sector union reform bill, Senate Bill 5, that would have prohibited forced union membership for the state's public employees. But the bill went much further, mandating merit pay, banning strikes, and curtailing the collective bargaining rights for public employees. It also required that they pay a percentage of their health insurance and pension benefits. The reforms were—and still are—needed, in large part because they would have given local governments control over their budgets, freeing them from crippling unfunded union mandates, for the first time since 1983. Kasich, whose vaunted balanced budget scheme was dependent on shifting costs to local governments, explained at the time, “We want to give local communities the ability to manage their costs.” Kasich said, “We’re a high-tax state. We brought the income tax down. But local communities still have high taxes.”

But Kasich overreached and made one strategic blunder after another. For starters, all the reforms were offered in one massive bill instead of as individual pieces of legislation. And unlike Scott Walker's union reforms in Wisconsin, Kasich's reforms included police and firefighters, which put the bill on shaky ground from the day it was introduced. Soon after it was signed by Gov. Kasich, an effort to repeal the law by referendum was underway, and because all the reforms had been included in one bill, voters had no choice but to take the whole thing—or repeal it all. In addition to a series of protests at the Statehouse, union activists spent some $30 million in their efforts to kill SB5. For months, Ohioans were subjected to ads showing grandma in the window of a burning house with no firefighter to rescue her—and it was all John Kasich's fault. Ohio's governor, who had already been signaling his intentions to run for president, seemed stunned and bruised by all the criticism; his defense of SB5 became more tepid and low-key the lower his poll numbers sunk. By November, with Kasich's approval rating hovering at 35%, SB5 was finished—and so was John Kasich's tenure as a union reformer.

Even though polls showed that voters overwhelmingly supported parts of SB5, like right-to-work and requiring public employees to pay a percentage of their health insurance and pensions, Kasich declared that the people had spoken. Unlike Wisconsin Governor Walker, who stared down the union protestors—and won—Kasich backed down and vowed that no union reforms would happen on his watch. He declared that right-to-work is "not on my agenda" and in fact, has made peace with the unions, proclaiming that "we don't have any disruptive labor situations" in Ohio. (Why would there be? Unions are getting everything they want. Meanwhile, local governments and taxpayers are going broke trying to fund the Cadillac benefit plans.)