COLUMBUS — The state's new collective bargaining law was defeated Tuesday after an expensive union-backed campaign that pitted firefighters, police officers and teachers against the Republican establishment.
In a political blow to GOP Gov. John Kasich, voters handily rejected the law, which would have limited the bargaining abilities of 350,000 unionized public workers. With nearly 95 percent of the votes counted late Tuesday, about 61 percent were to reject the law.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, among the many union leaders who hailed the outcome, said victory was achieved among Democrats and Republicans in urban and rural counties.
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"Ohio sent a message to every politician out there: Go in and make war on your employees rather than make jobs with your employees, and you do so at your own peril," he said.
Kasich congratulated his opponents and said he would spend time contemplating how best to take the state forward.
"I've heard their voices, I understand their decision and, frankly, I respect what people have to say in an effort like this," he said. "And as a result of that, it requires me to take a deep breath, you know, and to spend some time reflecting on what happened here."
Kasich said he has made creating jobs his priority and he's beginning to see his policies work.
In a signal of the issue's national resonance, White House spokesman Jay Carney issued a statement saying President Barack Obama "congratulates the people of Ohio for standing up for workers and defeating efforts to strip away collective bargaining rights, and commends the teachers, firefighters, nurses, police officers and other workers who took a stand to defend those rights."
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern, at a celebration at a downtown Columbus hotel, said Republicans and Kasich overreached.
"He literally thought he knew more than everyone else," Redfern said.
Asked whether the collective bargaining law, called Issue 2, was a referendum on Kasich, Redfern said, "Absolutely. He was the face of the campaign. John Kasich chose to put his face on this campaign for the last eight weeks. The people of the state pushed back."
Labor and business interests poured more than $30 million into the nationally watched campaign, and turnout was high for an off-year election.
Cincinnati great-grandmother Marlene Quinn, who appeared in anti-Issue 2 ads and then had her image used in pro-Issue 2 ads, said before the decision that she was thinking positive about a victory.
"We've come this far, and I said I want to go all the way with this because I know we're going to win, and I want to be there. So here I am," Quinn said at a We are Ohio rally. "We fought hard — hard and strong."
The law hadn't taken effect yet. Tuesday's result means the state's current union rules will stand, at least until the GOP-controlled Legislature determines its next move. Republican House Speaker William Batchelder predicted last week that the more palatable elements of the collective bargaining bill — such as higher minimum contributions on worker health insurance and pensions — are likely to be revisited after the dust settles.
Earlier Tuesday, voter Janet Tipton, a 46-year-old nurse and a Teamsters union member at a private health care center, said Issue 2 was the only reason she came out to vote.
"If they break the union, we won't have anything," she said outside a church on Toledo's east side. "They'll come after us, too."
She said retaining the union-limiting law would have affected quality of care for the elderly because it would have meant fewer nurses per patient.
Earlier this year, thousands of people swarmed the Statehouse in protest when the bill was being heard. The bill still allowed bargaining on wages, working conditions and some equipment but banned strikes, scrapped binding arbitration and dropped promotions based solely on seniority, among other provisions.
Kasich and fellow supporters promoted the law as a means for local governments to save money and keep workers. Their effort was supported by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business-Ohio, farmers and others.
We Are Ohio, the largely union-funded opponent coalition, painted the issue as a threat to public safety and middle-class workers, spending millions of dollars on TV ads filled with images of firefighters, police officers, teachers and nurses.
Celebrities came out on both sides of the campaign, with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and singer Pat Boone urging voters to retain the law and former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn and the Rev. Jesse Jackson urging them to scrap it.
Jackson said in a statement issued Tuesday after the vote that "workers, students and parents have come together, demonstrated, fought back and won."
"The struggle for workers' rights in Ohio is something that all Americans cherish. Although tonight's gains were a move in the right direction, the struggle continues," he said. "The passage of Ohio Senate Bill 5 by the Republican-led Ohio House was deplorable, but the tide has turned."
The law's opponents far outnumbered and outspent its defenders. Opponents reported raising $24 million as of mid-October, compared to about $8 million raised by the committee supporting the law, Building a Better Ohio.
Tuesday's result in the closely divided swing state was expected to resonate from statehouses to the White House ahead of the 2012 presidential election — potentially energizing the labor movement ahead of Obama's re-election effort.
Ohio residents also voted Tuesday to reject an insurance mandate in Obama's federal health insurance overhaul. Jeff Longstreth, who managed the successful campaign, said he sees that issue as more telling for the president's future in the swing state.
"Voters spoke very loudly and very clearly about how they felt about Barack Obama's proudest legislative accomplishment," he said.