COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ohio's Republican-dominated House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday that would strip state employees of most collective bargaining rights and ban them from striking, a measure that would make Ohio the largest U.S. state so far to curb the power of unions.

The bill, which passed the House 53 to 44, next goes back to the state Senate for a vote to approve changes made by the House, and would then go to Republican Governor John Kasich for his signature. The state Senate passed a version of the bill earlier this month.

Unions are a key constituency of the Democratic Party.

If the bill is enacted, Ohio would become the most populous U.S. state so far to impose sweeping collective bargaining curbs on public sector unions. The issue has spurred protests in Wisconsin and other states and is likely to be a factor in 2012 U.S. elections.

Wisconsin's legislature passed a law this month that sharply restricts public sector union bargaining rights, though Democrats have sought to block the law in the courts. Idaho has also passed similar restrictions.

Kasich said Ohio's bill would put taxpayers and public employees on a more equal footing regarding pay and benefits.

"This is really nothing more than an effort to rebalance the system and make sure that the people who pay the taxes are represented at the table," Kasich said.

The bill that passed the House removed jail time as a possible penalty for workers who participate in strikes and allows police and firefighters to collectively bargain for safety equipment.


But the modified bill is in other ways tougher on unions. It prevents nonunion employees affected by contracts from paying fees to unions and makes it easier to decertify a union. Democrats decry such measures as proof the bill is a politically motivated attack on unions dressed up as a budget measure.

Senate Democratic Leader Capri Cafaro said the changes "made a bad bill even worse."

While Wisconsin has gained more national attention, Ohio is far more important to the union movement and the bill would affect some 350,000 workers. It has the sixth-largest number of public sector union members among all U.S. states, twice the number of Wisconsin. With many auto and steel and manufacturing plants, Ohio is also a union bellwether.

Kasich said the bill would give local communities a way to control their costs.

Democratic State Representative Kenny Yuko said Democrats and union members will soon be gathering the 213,000 petition signatures needed for a referendum to give Ohio voters a chance to keep or repeal the law.

(Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Jerry Norton and Andrew Stern)

Source: Reuters US Online Report Domestic News

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