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Joe Guillen
By Joe Guillen September 9, 2011

We Are Ohio ad says Issue 2 would bar negotiations on firefighter numbers

The first TV commercial about the Issue 2 ballot war recently hit the airwaves. It features a firefighter talking about how his job will be more dangerous if the issue passes.

Issue 2 is the voter referendum on Senate Bill 5, the Republican-backed law passed earlier this year that restricts the collective bargaining power of Ohio’s public unions. If voters reject the issue on Nov. 8, SB 5 is overturned and will not take effect. If Issue 2 passes, the law takes effect after the election and will be applied as current collective bargaining agreements expire.

Although the 30-second commercial focuses on firefighters, SB 5 would affect about 360,000 public workers from teachers to prison guards to municipal workers.

The commercial shows a burning house and firefighters suiting up to respond. Ohio firefighter Doug Stern, as he is identified in the commercial, urges voters to vote against Issue 2 because it will endanger firefighters and the neighborhoods they are responsible for protecting.

"Issue 2 makes it illegal for us to negotiate for enough firefighters to do the job," Stern says.

Issue 2 is expected to be the most high-profile race on the fall ballot. Accusations of misinforming the public have flown from both sides since the law was introduced earlier this year. PolitiFact Ohio decided to check the central claim of the first commercial in what will be an ongoing effort to keep both sides honest.

SB 5 is a complete overhaul of Ohio’s collective bargaining law, which originally passed in 1983.

A spokeswoman for We Are Ohio, an anti-Issue 2 political action committee that produced the commercial, pointed us to a provision in SB 5  that she said verified the ad’s claim.

The law sets new rules for what topics cannot be negotiated and specifies other topics that are negotiable only if management agrees to do so. Overall, these new rules give management significantly more power at the bargaining table.

Melissa Fazekas, a spokeswoman for We Are Ohio, said the number of firefighters on the job is among the topics that cannot be negotiated under SB 5.

Specifically, the law amends a portion of Sec. 4117.08 of the Ohio Revised Code to say "the number of employees required to be on duty or employed in any department, division or facility of a public employer" is a subject "not appropriate" for collective bargaining.

Other topics prohibited from negotiations under this section of the law include pension pickups – the practice of employers paying a share of workers’ pension contributions – and health care benefits.

But supporters of Issue 2 and SB 5 insist that workers will be able to negotiate staffing as long as management agrees to do so.

Jason Mauk, spokesman for the pro-Issue 2 group Building a Better Ohio, pointed us to other language in a different part of that same section that he says allows management to initiate talks on staffing.

The law lists "the number of persons required to be employed or laid off" under topics that can be negotiated at management’s discretion.

"Nothing says that employees cannot discuss staffing levels with employers," Mauk said.

The two sides of this argument are an example of how confusing SB 5 can be. We have two similar topics that are treated differently under the law.

One provision – "the number of employees required to be on duty" – is among topics prohibited from collective bargaining. The other – "the number of persons required to be employed" – can be discussed at management’s discretion.

The key difference between the two is the phrase "on duty", said Mark Sanders, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters.

Any negotiations related to the latter provision would only ensure, for example, that a city has a certain number of firefighters on the payroll, Sanders said. It would not cover the number of firefighters required to be on a fire engine, he said.

The distinction between the two provisions, however, would be moot if management unilaterally decides it doesn’t want to discuss staffing at all.

And Mauk said the bill is designed to give management, such as police chiefs and fire chiefs, the authority to decide staffing levels. Mauk said that is the way it is done in the private sector.

Supporters of SB 5 like Mauk say Issue 2 is needed so mayors and others in management positions can cope with tightening budgets without cutting services or laying off workers.

A key tenet of PolitiFact is that words matter. In this case, the words used in the statement were that "Issue 2 makes it illegal for us to negotiate for enough firefighters to do the job."

We think the natural reading of "enough firefighters to do the job" is how many would be needed to fight a fire -- or on duty. Scenes in We Are Ohio’s ad show firefighters responding to a call, buttressing that notion.

There is language in SB 5 that could allow negotiations on  overall staffing levels -- a point of clarification -- but only if management allows the topic to be part of negotiations.

And  there is a clear  prohibition against negotiating the number of workers "on duty."

On the Truth-O-Meter, a statement that is accurate, but needs clarification rates Mostly True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

We Are Ohio, "Emergency"  Issue 2 commercial

Interview and e-mail correspondence with Melissa Fazekas, We Are Ohio spokeswoman, Sept. 6 and Sept. 7, 2011

Interview with John McClelland, spokesman for Ohio Senate Republicans, Sept. 6, 2011

E-mail with Mike Dittoe, spokesman for Ohio House Republicans, Sept. 7, 2011

Interview with Jason Mauk, Building a Better Ohio spokesman, Sept. 7, 2011

Interview with Mark Sanders, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters, Sept. 7, 2011

Ohio Senate Bill 5

Ohio Legislative Services Commission, analysis of Am. Sub. S.B. 5as passed by the General Assembly

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More by Joe Guillen

We Are Ohio ad says Issue 2 would bar negotiations on firefighter numbers

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