7/19/07

Can Ohio Gov. decree a management union?

By signing Executive Order 2007-23S, Gov. Ted Strickland brought forth a new collective-bargaining group in Ohio. Can he really do that? Republican lawmakers question whether it's legal for the governor to give independent home health-care workers the option of forming a union that would be recognized by the state. "What he has done, despite all the fancy footwork, is to attempt to authorize by executive order a union of business owners," said Rep. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican and lawyer.

"An association of independent contractors getting together to collectively determine reimbursement is called price fixing. That brings federal antitrust laws into play." Seitz questions Strickland's assertion that Tuesday's executive order alone can exempt the union from federal antitrust laws. But Strickland said yesterday, "We think we're on very solid legal grounds here."

The Democratic governor also brushed aside GOP criticism that he was rewarding labor-union contributors and supporters. He already has gotten heat after his appointees paved the way for union-scale (prevailing) wages in school-building contracts, and when he unsuccessfully pushed a moratorium on new charter schools, a move highly popular with teachers unions.

"I guess I'm not surprised at the criticism, but the fact is that I think what I've done is reasonable and makes a lot of sense," Strickland said. "The people that provide these in-home services, I think, deserve the same opportunity to have representation that the workers who work in the nursing-home facilities have."

Many of the state's 7,000 independent home health-care workers -- the ones who look after low-income elderly and disabled Ohioans -- say Strickland's order gives them a long-awaited opportunity to address concerns about pay, benefits and working conditions.

Russ Kamin of Toledo said he and other home-care workers meet each year with state officials in Columbus for updates on changes in Medicaid-funded care programs.

"Each year we would ask about a raise and getting insurance and, basically, they were telling us it wasn't going to happen," he said. "A lot of us got ticked and a lot of us quit."

The more the workers shared stories about their jobs, the more apparent it became that creating a union to get some leverage with the state might be the answer, Kamin said. Workers are paid $24 for the first hour and $12 for each subsequent one, before taxes. They get no health insurance or other benefits.

"The state isn't going to listen to four or five people trying to raise their wages, but they are going to listen to 7,000 of us," he said.

Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey acknowledged that allowing union representation through executive order sets a precedent for Ohio, one that could be undone by a future governor.

"Perhaps this is novel in Ohio, but it occurred in Illinois, Iowa and Michigan by executive order," Dailey said.

The governor's right to set up the collective-bargaining framework for these unrepresented workers stems simply from his authority as the state's chief executive, Dailey said.

Home health-care workers were on the Strickland administration's radar six months before the executive order.

His administration, citing a legal loophole, is ignoring the GOP-controlled legislature's exclusion of home care (and farm) workers from the state minimum wage.

Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment last fall boosting the hourly minimum from $5.15 to $6.85.

GOP lawmakers protested loudly, but nothing came of the dust-up with Strickland.

Jennifer Farmer, spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union District 1199, said Ohio is not the first state to allow independent workers to organize.

In May, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed an executive order allowing thousands of child-care providers to organize, and two years ago, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich did the same.

In other states, including Washington, Oregon, California and Michigan, workers have gained similar rights through ballot initiative, intergovernment agreement and legislative action, Farmer said.

(columbusdispatch.com)

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