I watched a number of SB5/Issue 2 debates recently, and personally attended a few really good ones including the debate between Connie Pillich and Shannon Jones and the debate between David Pepper and Tea Party Lawyer Gary Greenberg. Both were especially entertaining and revealed a lot about the messaging the pro-SB5 camp is using.

One of the talking points that all the SB5 advocates seem to be using relates to the part of SB5 that makes it illegal for unions and management to discuss staffing levels during contract negotiations.

The argument from our side is that not legally being allowed to discuss staffing levels – for example, fire fighters per truck or police officers per patrol car or corrections officers per shift – puts these public safety workers at risk, impacting their safety and the safety of the people and communities they protect and serve.

The standard pro-SB response, based on what I heard at the debates, seems to go something like this: why are you making such a big deal out of staffing levels? You know only 11% of union contracts in Ohio contain explicit language about staffing levels?

My first thought when hearing this argument is this: if only 11% of contracts contain this language then why the hell do we need to ban it? The dismissive “it’s only 11%” argument doesn’t address the safety concerns at all and actually seems kind of offensive given all of the examples of how proper staffing levels actually saved lives and how improper levels put lives at risk. Moreover it hurts their message about SB5 being “reasonable reform”.

I haven’t verified their 11% figure, but I’ve gone through a lot of these contracts and I’ve noticed that very few have explicit staffing level language, though they do contain other language that would impact staffing levels. Their number is obviously based on a very narrow and limited definition of staffing levels, excluding things like time to rehire for vacated positions or abolishing assignments without meeting certain requirements.

Assuming they only looked at specific staffing levels per vehicle or shift, then their 11% is probably true given the context – though I tend to think it actually proves our point more than theirs. The limited number of occurrences of language like this is actually a good thing, and it reflects positively on the current collective bargaining process in Ohio.

Staffing levels are often part of the discussion during contract negotiations and the fact that most contracts don’t include this type of requirement is a clear example of how unions and management can work together – under the current collective bargaining laws and without SB5 – to determine what needs to be written into a contract and what doesn’t. Obviously most unions and management have worked out levels that are effective, safe and cost effective for both sides – otherwise more contracts would contain this type of language.

The safety concerns, as I mentioned at the beginning, seem quite obvious. Maintaining minimum staffing levels in dangerous prisons or following the federal standard of four fire fighters per truck is clearly the best and safest option for everyone involved. But different cities, prisons, departments and communities have different needs, different budgetary constraints and different safety concerns. Shouldn’t the people who run these communities and departments, and the people who work every day to protect them, have the ability to at least discuss topics that impact the safety of everyone?

Taking staffing levels off the table, and making it illegal to even discuss it, impacts not only the unions but also management. It ties everyone’s hands and it completely goes against the long-time Republican concern over local control and the oft repeated GOP mantra that the “most effective, responsible and responsive government is a government closest to the people.”

This provision – like most of SB5 – imposes a set of restrictions on local communities defined by politicians in Columbus who think they know what is right for every town in Ohio. SB5 makes it illegal for both management and unions to even discuss basic work conditions like staffing levels all because a couple of old, rich and powerful Republicans think they know better than the people who were elected or hired to manage their local communities, and the people who have spent decades protecting them.

This provision – like so many other parts of SB5 – was poorly conceived, badly written and is seriously dangerous. And the “11%” response from SB5 supporters just shows how little they actually understand about labor contract negotiations and how little they respect the hard and dangerous work Ohio’s public safety employees perform every day.

If SB5’s supporters intend to win the debate of this provision of the bill – or any provision for that matter – then they are going to need some better responses.