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More Wage-Benefit Contracts Settled Before SB 5 Takes Effect

Public employers and unions this year are reaching contract settlements more easily. The agreements at the bargaining table come as a new collective bargaining law is scheduled to take effect on July 1. While a referendum on Senate Bill 5 is possible, WOSU's Tom Borgerding reports the new legislation is already having an effect on labor-management agreements in the public sector. "Oh, I think it's a tremendous factor." As a director at the Ohio School Boards Association, Van Keating, often sits across from union representatives when school districts bargain contracts with teacher unions. So far, this year, he's been busy. Fifty-four contracts between local boards and unions have been signed. Last year at this time, 17 contracts were final. Keating says a new collective bargaining law, known as SB 5, is helping speed pay and benefit settlements even though it has not yet taken effect. "I think when you're looking at the settlements you're seeing now it's a result of basically the parties already having a mindset about what's going to happen and why both sides would be better off reaching a quick agreement for as long a term as they can get." Keating says that's because contracts signed before July 1 are not subject to changes written into SB 5. Provisions in the new law, including outlawing strikes by all public workers and eliminating pay raises based on seniority and education, prompted opponents to seek a referendum. Valid signatures are still being tallied. If enough signatures are certified, Ohio voters will decide in November whether SB 5 takes effect or whether it will be repealed. Andy Jewell, a researcher at the Ohio Education Association, the union representing teachers, says the spike in public labor agreements is, in part, a search for economic certainty. "Folks are looking to lock-up agreements in the hopes of wading through or delaying some of the implementation of the proposed changes in the bargaining law." Jewell says the OEA is 'vehemently opposed' to SB 5 and the organization actively worked to collect signatures to put it to a statewide vote. But Miami University economics professor Bill Even says SB 5 will make it tougher for unions to get generous contracts. Even says that's already happening without the law being in effect. "Of the contracts signed so far this year in Ohio, about 80 percent of them have no pay raises for the next year or two. And that is a new all time high as far as the percentage of contracts with no pay raise." Even says that's in part a reflection of the tough economic times. But he says SB 5 "clearly reduces the bargaining power of the union." Even adds that school boards also face pressures as revenue from the state is cut and foreclosures take a bite out of property tax revenue. Van Keating says if the pending law tilts the balance in favor of management, local school boards struggle to balance public interests with the interests of classroom teachers, custodians, secretaries and cafeteria workers. "Board members are people too. And when they see, and everyone experiences rising costs in gasoline and groceries and things like that, it seems to really be tough for a lot of boards to actually sit and look at their employees who provide the teaching and support services for the school and look them in the face and say we simply have no money for you." Keating says the school boards association has not taken a position on a possible referendum on SB 5. The OEA and other public unions are working actively to get the issue on the ballot in the hopes voters will repeal the measure.