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Keeping Morale Up When Collective Bargaining Is At Risk

How does the rhetoric and politics around initiatives like Ohio's Issue 2 affect the morale of public employees?

Yesterday, Ohio voters were asked to vote either to maintain or reject the provisions of SB 5, which prohibited public-sector unions from striking, limited collective bargaining and mandated that employees contribute more to health care and pensions. It was soundly defeated by a 3-to-2 margin.

Prior to the election, both sides of the debate ran a number of heated ads, taking two different approaches to SB 5's impact -- a search on YouTube for "Issue 2 Ohio 2011" pulls up a variety. The "yes" campaign (supporting SB 5) focused its ads on the high cost of salaries, pensions and benefits for state employees. The "no" campaign refuted those ads by focusing on the potential risks to public safety.

I currently live in Akron and I've noticed that the negative tv ads raise an important question: How does such rhetoric and politics affect the morale of public employees?

Craig Boardman, an assistant professor at The Ohio State University, says that while there is no data to back up the idea that initiatives like Issue 2 affect morale, there is a logical argument to make. "It seems that collective bargaining rights are valued by government workers in Ohio and that Senate Bill 5 has restricted these rights. Accordingly, it follows that Senate Bill 5 may be having a negative impact on the morale of government workers in Ohio," Boardman says.

In Toledo, Independent Mayor Michael P. Bell, a former fire chief and state fire marshal, came out in support of SB 5 and Issue 2. The Toledo firefighters did not. And according to Wayne Hartford, president of the Toledo Firefighters Local 92, seeing a campaign and a mayor supporting Issue 2 makes keeping high morale difficult.

"We're making more fire and EMS runs than we ever had in our history. To get bombarded by the state issues and the issues locally, and then to have our mayor step out and go against something we truly believe in -- collective bargaining -- it doesn't do very well for morale," says Hartford. To keep firefighters engaged, Hartford and other union leaders tried to keep their colleagues involved in the community and encouraged them to attend Issue 2 rallies.

Toledo's employee morale problems stretch beyond Bell's stance on Issue 2. The city's problems can be traced back to financial struggles beyond Bell's tenure starting in 2010. Currently facing a $16 million structural deficit, the city made significant budget cuts, leaving little room to hire much needed employees, spreading thin those already working for the city. "Our employees are working really hard to start with," says Jen Sorgenfrei, the mayor's public information officer.

Sorgenfrei believes the firefighters understand the mayor's position, but still disagree. Unfortunately, says Sorgenfrei, "we just haven't seen an alternative position presented to keep operating safely without going into fiscal danger."

To keep morale up, Sorgenfrei says that the mayor tries to recognize the work city employees do both within and outside of their jobs. The mayor's office is aware that citizens sometimes have a negative view of government and government employees. "We try to recognize [the good work] because you hear the complaints from citizens but you don't hear the good things about what employees are doing," she says.

Sorgenfrei was uncertain of how the outcome of Issue 2 would affect the workforce in Toledo. "I don't know that it's going to significantly change morale one way or another," she says. "I think the better thing we can do is make sure we're keeping our workforce employed and providing a fair wage and benefits, and if possible, getting enough manpower."

It's probably safe to assume that the rejection of Issue 2 has public-sector workers' morale a little higher today. But what that vote doesn't immediately change is the amount of money in state, city and county coffers. In the days, months and years to come, Toledo and other cities in Ohio and elsewhere will continue to struggle with budgets that force tough decisions, affecting morale no matter what voters decide. And if it gets really bad, Ohio State's Boardman says that public employees may vote -- with their feet -- and find employment elsewhere instead of waiting for any morale boost.

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
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