Kasich Finds Unlikely Backer in Ohio Construction Union

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By Chris Opfer

April 6 — Just five years after his failed attempt to peel back public workers' rights, Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) is getting support from an unlikely backer in his long-shot run for the White House: an Ohio construction union.

“When he first came into office after the 2010 election, he was an opponent of prevailing wage and the building trades,” Matthew Szollosi, Affiliated Construction Trades Ohio's executive director, told Bloomberg BNA April 4.

“Over the course of time, we’ve been able to forge a very strong relationship to the point now where he’s asked the building trades to be involved in a number of different ways in development opportunities,” Szollosi said.

ACT Ohio earlier this year contributed $25,000 to a political action committee supporting Kasich's presidential run.

Szollosi said the governor has softened his stance on labor issues, such as prevailing wage and right-to-work, after Ohio voters repealed legislation that would have limited public workers' collective bargaining rights.

Although a number of labor groups remain critical of Kasich on workers' rights issues, the support bolsters his position as a moderate among the remaining three Republican presidential candidates.

It also sets him apart from competitors Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), both of whom have said they support right-to-work measures that would ban “union security” clauses in collective bargaining agreements.

ACT Ohio is part of the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Council, an AFL-CIO affiliate. The group represents some 92,000 construction workers.

Public Fight Over Government Workers

The struggle between Kasich and Ohio's public employees unions reached a crescendo in 2011 when the governor signed into law a bill to curb state and local employees' collective bargaining rights .

The measure was repealed later the same year, when nearly two-thirds of voters backed a referendum to stop the legislation from going into effect .

The law would have eliminated binding arbitration for police and firefighters, banned public workers from striking, halted automatic pay increases, and allowed employers to take factors other than seniority into account in selecting workers for layoffs.

It also would have barred governments from paying any portion of an employee's share of pension contributions and required workers to chip in at least 15 percent of their health care costs.

Workers would have been able to negotiate wages and certain working conditions under the law, but not issues such as health care, sick leave and pension benefits. Employers would have had the authority to terminate labor contracts in fiscal emergency situations.

Sandy Theis is the executive director of ProgressOhio, a coalition of left-leaning groups across the state. She told Bloomberg BNA April 5 that the battle over the public workers bill is a prime example of how hostile Kasich is toward organized labor.

“What people don't realize is that some of the more offensive parts of that bill were specifically added to the legislation by the governor's office,” Theis said.

The AFL-CIO and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees unsuccessfully targeted Kasich in his 2014 reelection . Representatives from the Ohio Federation of Teachers declined Bloomberg BNA's request for comment.

‘He Listened.'

ACT Ohio's Szollosi, who was serving in the state legislature as a Democrat when the government workers law was repealed, says Kasich changed his tune after seeing the strong public opposition to the legislation.

“Rather than react angrily, the governor did something that I consider to be very rare in politics: he listened,” Szollosi said. “Shortly thereafter, we reached out and that led to a lunch with the governor and the head of the state building trades, which led to additional meetings, which led to the opportunity to really start to work closely together.”

Szollosi cited Kasich's support for prevailing wage requirements, which force contractors on public projects to pay their workers certain minimum rates, as a sign that the governor has softened his stance on labor issues. Szollosi also said he's confident that Kasich would oppose efforts to pass right-to-work legislation in the state.

“My understanding is that the governor does not see it as necessary in the state of Ohio because we don’t have labor-management strife,” Szollosi said. “I’ve heard him say that repeatedly.”

Kasich campaign representatives did not respond to Bloomberg BNA's requests for comment. Last year, Kasich Press Secretary Rob Nichols told Bloomberg BNA that a Charleston Gazette story—in which Kasich was quoted as saying that the lack of a right-to-work law hasn't stopped businesses from thriving in Ohio—“accurately depicts” the governor's position on the issue .

Theis isn't convinced. She said Kasich's recent positions on labor issues are more about courting public support than reflecting a change of heart.

“Right now he’s saying what he needs to say to keep the peace,” Theis told Bloomberg BNA. “What we could expect from a Kasich presidency is that he will use the discretionary power of his office to punish organized labor.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Opfer in Washington at copfer@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com