COLUMBUS, Ohio (WTVN) -- Less than two years after Ohio voters overwhelmingly rejected collective bargaining limits for government workers, Republicans in the Ohio House took the first public steps Tuesday toward passing legislation that would prohibit requiring workers to join or pay automatic dues to a union.
Similar right-to-work laws are in place in 24 states, including neighboring Indiana and Michigan, and state Rep. Kristina Roegner circulated a co-sponsorship request saying that she wants Ohio to become the 25th.
Roegner's "Workplace Freedom" bill would apply to private-sector unions, and a companion measure from state Rep. Ron Maag would apply to public-sector unions.
Maag's letter to fellow lawmakers said the legislation means "employees would be free to choose whether or not to join a labor union."
The measures would prohibit any requirements that employees of public or private employers join or pay dues to any employee organization. They also establish as state policy "that each employee must be fully free to decide whether to associate, organize, designate a representative, or join or assist an employee organization," according to Maag's memo.
Democrats and labor leaders immediately leaped on the proposals as a slap to the strong majority of Ohio voters who repealed a proposed collective bargaining overhaul in November 2011 that limited the bargaining rights of public-sector workers. Almost 62 percent of voters objected to the law.
"I am just appalled by the efforts of Representatives Maag and Roegner to once again attempt to silence the voice of workers across the state of Ohio, this time in both the public and private sector," Service Employees International Union District 1199 President Becky Williams said in a statement. "This will hurt people we trust like librarians, nurses, mental health providers, social workers and so many others."
House Democratic Leader Armond Budish called it "Senate Bill 5 all over again" — referring to the collective bargaining law.
"So-called right to work means fewer rights, not more, for working Ohioans. It would negatively impact the lives of all Ohioans, and it would particularly harm the ability of our police, firefighters and teachers to bargain for safety equipment, proper staffing levels, and class sizes, just to mention a few," Budish said in a statement. "For example, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of workplace deaths is 51 percent higher in states with right to work."
Roegner and Maag scheduled a news conference Wednesday to discuss the bills. They set Wednesday at 9 a.m. as the deadline to sign on as a co-sponsor of one or both measures.
"You ask the average person 'should you be forced to pay dues to a union just to have a job?' The average person says overwhelmingly not," said Chris Littleton with Ohioans for Workplace Freedom, a group pushinging the issue.
Littleton says they've been collecting signatures to put the issue on the ballot either this year or next year.
"We don't know what's going to happen in the legislative process. We don't know what it's going to look like. We have no idea what will come to fruition, so in the meantime we'll continue gathering signatures and plan on putting this on the ballot," he said.
A spokesman for Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who faces re-election next year, said it was too soon to pass judgment on the legislation.
"There have been nearly 300 bills introduced so far this year. We don't weigh in on all of them and it would be premature to do so on these," spokesman Rob Nichols said in an email.
Though Kasich did not initiate Senate Bill 5, as the governor who signed it his name became closely associated with the divisive law and it damaged his popularity for a time.
Thousands descended on the Ohio Statehouse to protest the bill's passage, prompting state officials at one point to lock the doors out of concern for lawmakers' safety. Chants opposing the bill interrupted Kasich's first State of the State speech and has not held the annual addresses in Columbus since.
The earlier legislation affected more than 350,000 police, firefighters, teachers, nurses and other government workers. It set mandatory health care and pension minimums for unionized government employees, banned public worker strikes, scrapped binding arbitration and prohibited basing promotions solely on seniority.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald criticized the new proposal, saying, "My promise to Ohio's working and middle class families is that they will never have to fear these kinds of attacks if I am their governor."
The Associated Press contributed to this story