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Election Day in Ohio is a test for labor unions nationwide

Election Day: Ohio Gov. Kasich signed a law curbing the power of public sector labor unions in March, but an ensuing outcry led to a referendum on the law being placed on Tuesday's ballot. 

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Voters cast their ballots at the Wakeman Township fire station near Wakeman, Ohio, Tuesday. Ohioans are deciding the winner of this year's drawn-out fight over a law limiting collective bargaining for 350,000 unionized public workers. The issue tops the Election Day list of ballot questions before the state's voters.

Mark Duncan/AP

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Ohio voters are casting ballots today on a question of nationwide significance: whether public-sector labor unions should have their power curbed in an era of fiscal austerity.

The ballot measure, called "Issue 2," represents a referendum on a law already passed by the Ohio legislature and signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich on March 31. Once the law was passed, labor unions mounted a drive for signatures to challenge the law by referendum. Implementation of the law has been put on hold pending the outcome of Tuesday's vote.

Although motivated by opposition to the law, the ballot measure is set up so that a "yes" vote would leave the law intact, while labor union supporters are urging Ohioans to vote "no."

The vote comes as states and localities nationwide are wrestling with tight budgets, and as some other states have moved to curb union bargaining power. Notably, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislature there passed labor restrictions despite weeks of protests by Democratic lawmakers and union supporters.

Moves on union-related matters such as public-employee health-care costs and teacher tenure have also cropped up in states as diverse as Massachusetts, Indiana, Nevada, and Florida.

Amid a nationwide focus on such questions, the Ohio referendum could send important signals. Polls taken before the vote suggest that a majority of Ohioans side with the view of labor unions. And a majority of voters in one poll say they disapprove of Mr. Kasich's performance as governor.

If the Ohio vote goes labor's way, it won't necessarily signal a nationwide change in momentum on the issue. For one thing, the labor movement has stronger roots in Ohio than in many other states. Also, the Ohio law represents just one approach to placing new limits on public-sector unions – an approach that many state voters found distasteful. (The law effectively eliminates the right to strike, for example.)

But a "no" vote on the law would provide a big boost to organized labor, with a win that could help energize its union ranks nationwide. It would send a signal that unions can win some key battles, although they have failed so far to overturn a similar law in Wisconsin.

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