Ohio public safety workers fear anti-labor law will lead to depleted staffs, equipment

Workers see slower response times ahead, say vague equipment policy is hazardous
Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Flickr/Tony WebsterIn his party’s push to curb collective bargaining rights among public employees in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) let police and firefighters off the hook after they endorsed his gubernatorial campaign. It’s a different story in Ohio, where Gov. John Kasich and state Republicans have paid no such favors.

Senate Bill 5, legislation that strips almost all of Ohio’s public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights, will allow Ohio police and firefighters to nominally negotiate for wages and benefits.

Under the legislation, though, bargaining is more like pleading. If the bill is not repealed in a Nov. 8 statewide referendum, Issue, 2, management will hold all the cards in any negotiation.

“When someone gets to choose their own last best offer anyway, it really doesn’t give someone incentive to bargain,” Director of Governmental Affairs for the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters Jim Carney said. “It’s really collective begging. We can say, ‘This is what we want. This is what we need. This is what we need to protect the public.’ All they have to do, at the end of the day, is say, ‘No. We like our offer better.’”

Jay McDonald, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Ohio, compared it to negotiating with his children over bedtimes. They can ask to stay up past midnight. But, at the end of the day, they can only ask. He ultimately makes the decision.

The inability to bargain in any meaningful way could affect public safety in Ohio in a myriad of ways, McDonald said.

“It prohibits police officers and firefighters from talking to their employers about staffing,” he said. “It’ll be politicians that are making the decision on how many people are on a fire truck or how many police officers are working through a shift as opposed to the experts that know the needs of their community.”

According to McDonald, if Senate Bill 5 is not repealed, about 51,000 public employees across the state could lose their jobs. He estimates that about two-thirds of those will be public safety employees.

Less police on the beat could mean increased crime rates while fewer firefighters in stations across the state could add to response times in emergencies.

“Without the ability to negotiate for staffing levels, we lose firefighters. When a call comes in, there’s less firefighters available,” said Carney. “When you reduce staffing you reduce the availability of people to be able to respond to emergencies.”

While Senate Bill 5 does provide public safety officials the right to bargain –- or beg, as Carney put it –- for personal safety equipment, nowhere in the legislation is it spelled out exactly what that means.

Public safety officials fear that, too, could be left up to management.

“We have the right to ask for personal safety equipment, but no one can decide what that is. Does that mean bullet resistant vests? Does that mean cruisers? Does that mean radiator detectors? Does that mean Hazmat suits?” McDonald asked. “Even if you have the right to ask for them, in a Senate Bill 5 world, that’s all you get to do is ask. We’re going to be dependent upon the benevolence of our employers when we’re talking about safety equipment.”

Goodwill should not be relied upon when it comes to life and death, though.

In testimony in opposition to Senate Bill 5 in front of the Ohio House’s Commerce and Labor Committee, Elaine N. Silveira, assistant general counsel to the Ohio State Troopers Association, outlined just how fine that line can be.

In 2003, a Missouri officer died in the line of duty after his Crown Victoria Police Interceptor -– the same vehicle used by the Ohio State Highway Patrol (OSTA) –- was rammed from behind. Troopers soon learned the safety hazard could be fixed by installing a steel plate over the gas tank, and sought to have them installed.

It was not until two Ohio State troopers died in the same manner as their colleague in Missouri, followed by a lengthy and bitter arbitration process, that the plates were put on OSTA cars.

“You would think that the state of Ohio would say, ‘Absolutely. We want to protect our state troopers.’ But they had to go to arbitration to force the state of Ohio to install the shields to keep the vehicles from exploding,” said McDonald.

Under Senate Bill 5, the task of the third-party arbitrator falls on the elected body that also serves as management.

“If Senate Bill 5 becomes law, safety is going to be limited,” said Chris Weaver, vice president of the Youngstown Professional Fire Fighters Local 312. “We won’t be able to sit down and negotiate proper safety equipment that will protect us and protect the community.

“You’re gambling with your communities’ safety and their lives. There’s a lot at stake here when you’re talking about public safety.”


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