Thu Mar 31, 2011 6:33am BST

Ohio legislature passes bill curbing union rights

Union supporter Tom Ullom, of Westerville, watches a broadcast of the Ohio House debate on Senate Bill 5 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, March 30, 2011.
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Union supporters react to comments during the Ohio House debate on Senate Bill 5 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, March 30, 2011.
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Union supporters watch a broadcast of the Ohio House debate on Senate Bill 5 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, March 30, 2011.
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Members of the Ohio House of Representatives hold a floor debate on Senate Bill 5 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, March 30, 2011.
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Union supporter Portia Boulger reacts as she watches a broadcast of the Ohio House debate on Senate Bill 5 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, March 30, 2011.
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Ohio House minority leader Armond D. Budish (D-Beachwood) listens to a floor debate on Senate Bill 5 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, March 30, 2011.
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Representative Teresa Fedor (D-Toledo) shakes hands with union supporters in the Ohio Statehouse Rotunda during a floor debate on Senate Bill 5 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, March 30, 2011.
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Union supporter Scott Blackburn, of Columbus, protests in the Ohio Statehouse Rotunda during a floor debate on Senate Bill 5 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, March 30, 2011.
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Speaker of the Ohio House William G. Batchelder (R-Medina) silences the gallery during a floor debate on Senate Bill 5 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, March 30, 2011.
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Union supporter Portia Boulger reacts as she watches a broadcast of the Ohio House debate on Senate Bill 5 at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, March 30, 2011.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Ohio's legislature on Wednesday passed a Republican measure to curb the collective bargaining rights of about 350,000 state employees, and Governor John Kasich said he will sign it into law.

Its passage marks another success for Republicans who are pursuing measures in several states to limit the rights of public-sector unions. Unions are a key constituency of the Democratic Party.

The bill, which also bans strikes by unions for public employees, was approved in the Ohio Senate late on Wednesday following its passage in the state House of Representatives earlier in the day.

Kasich, a Republican, did not indicate when he would sign the bill but he is expected to do so by Friday. When the bill is enacted, Ohio would become the most populous U.S. state this year to impose sweeping collective bargaining curbs on public sector unions.

Kasich said the bill will put taxpayers and public employees on a more equal footing regarding pay and benefits.

Similar measures have spurred protests in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Michigan and other states.

Ohio Democrats hope to put the new law on the ballot for a referendum vote in November in an effort to overturn it.

"The wheels are in motion" for a referendum battle, said State Senator Joe Schiavoni, a Democrat. "They're trying to take away these union members' rights."

"I'm hopeful and I feel confident that at the end of the day the referendum will overturn the law," he said.

During the debate, some Republicans said changes from an earlier version of the bill, including a modification that allowed police and firefighters to bargain collectively for safety equipment, improved it.

"The bill we have on the floor today has some blemishes but addresses major problems in the collective bargaining process," said State Representative Michael Henne, a Republican.

The amended bill removed jail time as a possible penalty for workers who strike. But it is in some 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 decried such measures as proof the bill is a politically motivated attack dressed up as a budget measure.

The Wisconsin and Idaho legislatures have passed laws that limit collective bargaining rights for state union workers. Tennessee is reviewing legislation that would limit collective bargaining rights for teachers.

While Wisconsin has gained more national attention, Ohio is far more important to unions. It has the sixth largest number of public sector union members among all the 50 states, twice the number of Wisconsin. With many auto and steel and manufacturing plants, Ohio is also a union bellwether.

(Reporting by Jo Ingles and Mary Wisniewski; Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Will Dunham)

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