National News

Ohio Catholic Lawmaker’s Bill Strips Away Public University Employees’ Right To Strike, Raising Concerns

Striking union members in Columbus, Ohio, in a file photo from August 1997. (OSV News photo)

By Kimberley Heatherington

(OSV News) — Labor experts and Catholic organizations have voiced concern over legislative developments in Ohio that could impact the right to strike for unionized employees at the state’s public colleges and universities — while the Catholic sponsor of that same legislation says it’s designed to protect the students those employees serve.

Known as the Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act, SB 83 — primarily sponsored by Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland — passed the Ohio Senate May 17, and is currently in committee in the Ohio House of Representatives as HB 151.

The bill states, “The following public employees shall not strike … Employees of any state institution of higher education.” This includes professors, janitors, cafeteria staff, administrators — any unionized employee on a state college or university campus.

Brian Hickey, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio, told OSV News, “The Catholic Church supports workers who strike for compensation and dignified working conditions. Our faith recognizes the right to strike as a legitimate means of forcing good-faith negotiations, and this right should be neither restricted nor penalized.”

However, Cirino told OSV News, “In the state of Ohio, we have about 12 other categories of state workers that are not permitted to strike — and we’re talking about adding the members of any labor organizations that are part of our 14 public universities or 23 community colleges.”

Other job classifications SB 83 prohibits from striking are state law enforcement and firefighters; state emergency dispatchers; correctional officers, guards, and attendants at various state facilities; employees of state schools for the deaf or blind; and public employee retirement systems administrators.

“We have precedent that we think is very settled and clear,” Cirino explained. “Students pay for their tuition up front. They’re entering into a contract with the university — and by definition, with the state, because they’re state universities. So nothing should interrupt the fulfillment of that contract — and I’m sure church teaching does not suggest, anywhere, that when you enter into an agreement, you can interfere with a contract between two other parties.”

“There is no precedent for that,” Cirino added, “and there is no church policy that I’ve ever seen that would suggest that it’s OK to do that.”

The Catholic Church has an extensive history of teaching and actions from past popes — Pope Leo XIII, St. John Paul XXIII, St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II to Pope Benedict XVI, among others — that support the rights of workers; popes and prelates have spoken directly to the issue of strikes in other contexts.

St. John Paul stated in his encyclical “Laborem Exercens” (1981) that strikes are “recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits. … Workers should be assured the right to strike, without being subjected to personal penal sanctions for taking part in a strike.” The pontiff also cautioned that “we must at the same time emphasize that a strike remains, in a sense, an extreme means. It must not be abused.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All” (1986) advises, “Unions may also legitimately resort to strikes where this is the only available means to the justice owed workers.”

“I don’t have any problem with labor unions,” explained Cirino, who is Catholic. “I came out of the business world, and I dealt with unions; we coexisted for a long time. In this case, they can go ahead and organize, and remain organized if they already are — but we’re just saying, you can’t strike or even threaten to strike, because the students need to be protected, and that contract should not be interfered with.”

Opponents of SB 83 argue the proposed union restrictions weaken their bargaining ability. The Ohio Education Association warned “the true intent of this portion of SB 83 is to weaken the power of campus workers to advocate for fair working conditions, which are students’ learning conditions.”

“The right to engage in collective bargaining is a basic human right recognized in most modern democratic nations,” Paul Clark, a professor of labor and employment relations at Penn State University, told OSV News. “Public employees deserve this right as much as any other kind of worker. Collective bargaining cannot work effectively without the right to strike.”

But Cirino claimed union members’ general objections basically admitted “that they’re using the students as pawns in their negotiation process.”

“There are plenty of other things they can negotiate on,” he said, emphasizing “opportunities to state their case on whatever the issues might be, and to go to mediation in the long and detailed process that we have in Ohio, and reiterated in this bill. So they’re not losing all their bargaining power at all.”

The bill also is meant, Cirino said, to encourage increased diversity of on-campus opinion, so “people of all opinions have an opportunity to present their opinions and their views, and not be intimidated in any way by faculty or other students. That’s the main thrust of this bill.”

“It’s not an anti-union bill,” stressed Cirino. “It’s a pro-student bill.”

John McNay, a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati and a member of the Catholic Labor Network, told OSV News university strikes are rare in Ohio. Only two have occurred in the last 10 years, he said, and his own faculty union last struck 30 years ago.

In 2011, SB 5 sought to end collective bargaining rights for Ohio public employees, but was repealed in a citizen-led campaign.

“This is just taking another bite of the apple,” McNay said. “This strikes all of us as a bit too much like Senate Bill 5.”

“We admit that in negotiations, the threat of strike is useful. It causes the university to take our negotiations seriously. But nobody wants to go on strike,” shared McNay.

The Ohio Legislative Service Commission observes, “The bill prohibits collective bargaining with respect to a state institution’s faculty performance evaluation systems, tenure and retrenchment policies, and post-tenure review policies and requires them to prevail over any conflicting provision of a collective bargaining agreement entered into on or after July 1, 2024.”

“The whole objective here,” McNay said, “when you combine losing the right to strike; losing the right to negotiate over tenure; losing the right to negotiate over annual performance reviews; losing the right to negotiate over retrenchment — what they’re trying to do is to make us as ineffective as possible.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Ohio had 641,000 union members in 2022. “This is a slap in the face to all of us,” commented McNay.

McNay said he believes Catholic supporters of SB 83 “seem to totally ignore the Catholic position on unions. If they really believe in Catholic ideas, and Catholic ways of doing things, and Catholic understandings of the world — then why are they doing this to us?”

“As a practicing Catholic and I like to think I’m a loyal Catholic, certainly,” Cirino said, “I am perfectly comfortable with my moral position on this bill.”

However, Cirino added that he has not spoken with the Catholic Conference of Ohio about its concerns.

“Nobody from the Catholic conference has called me about this bill,” he said. “This bill’s been out for two and a half months. So if they have issues or questions, somebody from the conference should call me, and talk about it.”