By Jo Ingles
COLUMBUS (Reuters) - Ohio Governor John Kasich and leading Republican lawmakers said on Wednesday they want to negotiate with opponents of a law curbing public sector union rights to prevent the measure from going to a public referendum this fall.
But leaders of organized labor quickly signaled they were unwilling to compromise and said they looked forward to putting the controversial curbs that Kasich backed earlier this year before voters in November.
Unions and opponents of the law, which bans strikes and limits bargaining rights for public employees including teachers, firefighters and police officers, have already gathered over three times the number of signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot.
The law was passed earlier this year but has not been implemented. It will not take effect unless it survives the referendum challenge in November, which will proceed unless it is pulled from the ballot by the end of August.
Kasich said he was only interested in heading off another lengthy fight over the issue, not trying to salvage the measure, which recent polls have shown has a good chance of being repealed in November.
"This is not an effort being put forward because we think we are going to lose," Kasich said.
He said Ohio had made progress in recent months by passing a balanced budget and improving its credit rating.
"Things are going in the right direction for our state," he said. "But a divisive fight on these issues that could possibly be avoided are in the best interests of everyone."
POISED FOR VOTE
Republican Senate President Tom Niehaus said this emotionally charged issue was causing his constituents to ask this question: "Why can't you just sit down and work this out? What's the big deal"?
A spokeswoman for the umbrella group that represents unions and Democrats said she wonders where this spirit of compromise was this winter, when opponents of the bill were locked out of the Ohio Statehouse as lawmakers were considering the plan.
Melissa Fazekas of "We are Ohio" said she was glad Republicans who pushed the bill through the legislature were conceding it was a flawed measure.
She said the 1.3 million Ohioans who signed petitions to put the issue on the ballot were poised to vote against allowing the law to go into effect.
Fazekas said if Republican leaders were serious about wanting to negotiate, there was one thing they must do.
"These politicians who passed Senate Bill Five have the ability to come back and repeal the law and that's what they should do. Repeal the entire law or they can join us and vote no in November on issue two," she said.
Some public unions have also quickly reacted, saying the entire law should be repealed. While Kasich and legislative leaders are talking about being willing to make changes, they are not saying they are willing to repeal the law outright.
Republican House Speaker Bill Batchelder said if the legislature needed to be called in to deal with this issue, that can happen quickly. For his part, Kasich said he just wants to make an effort to deal with the matter now.
"If we don't get anywhere, we will see you in November," Kasich said.
(Editing by James Kelleher and Cynthia Johnston)