COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Thousands of pro-labor protesters were denied access to the Ohio Statehouse for hours Tuesday as they tried to voice opposition to a bill that would abolish collective bargaining rights for state employees.
Before eventually being allowed in, crowds chanted and waved placards as they stood outside in freezing temperatures.
Democrats inside mustered their political and legal resources to fight what they called an undemocratic lockout, which Republican Gov. John Kasich's public safety agency said was a necessary precaution.
The Ohio Democratic Party had joined forces with unions and union-friendly groups across the state over the three-day President's Day weekend in hopes of mobilizing crowds of bill opponents.
The measure, pitched as part of Kasich's remedy for an $8 billion budget gap, undoes Ohio's nearly 30-year-old collective bargaining law and imposes other limits on negotiations between police, firefighters, teachers and college and university staffs and their employers.
Opponents say there's no proof that getting rid of collective bargaining would save the state much money.
Of an estimated 5,200 protesters who gathered Tuesday, about 1,000 were initially allowed to enter. They were restricted to two public halls - the Atrium and Rotunda - and the rest of the Statehouse was quiet and mostly empty. Democratic lawmakers tried to bring union supporters in as personal guests in groups of a few dozen at a time, but they were blocked.
"There's people outside in the snow that could be inside," said U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, a Niles Democrat, as he stood in the loosely populated Atrium earlier Tuesday. "There's no reason why Ohio citizens who get on a bus at 4 or 5 in the morning to come to Columbus and protest an issue - for or against - should not be allowed in the Statehouse."
Ohio Department of Public Safety spokesman Joe Andrews said the number allowed in was determined by Ohio State Highway Patrol officials working on site. But no one could say why authority had been turned over to public safety officials. Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols deferred questions to Andrews.
An occupancy permit for the Statehouse that was reviewed by The Associated Press allowed for "5000-plus" to legally be on site within fire code. That number includes hearing rooms that accommodate about 3,200 people, permit figures showed.
Democrats threatened legal action at mid-afternoon, and doors were opened by 4 p.m., the scheduled start time of a hearing on the bill before a Senate committee.
Columbus attorney Don McTigue said his office had contacted the office of Attorney General Mike DeWine on behalf of labor organizations in an effort to gain access for as many protesters as possible, and Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern called on Kasich to instruct the Highway Patrol to allow more people in.
DeWine's office couldn't confirm whether a meeting had been held.
Retired Toledo school teacher Mary Ellen Bollenbacher, who taught first grade, said she waited for an hour and a half to be let into the building. She was with a friend who was scheduled to testify at the 4 p.m. hearing on the bill.
"When we got here, we couldn't understand why we weren't being let in," she said. "So when we were finally let in, I was happy - happy to get in."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson made an appearance at the Statehouse to support the protesters. He was fresh off a visit to Wisconsin, where similar legislation has been drawing tens of thousands of pro-labor demonstrators.
He accused Kasich and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker of using the economy as an excuse to "crush unions."
"This clearly is an ideological struggle now about which way will America go," he told reporters outside the hearing room.
After a stop in the hearing room, Jackson drew loud cheers as he passed through hundreds of people gathered in the Statehouse Atrium listening to testimony over loudspeakers. He led the crowd in a chant.
His Ohio stay will include visits to lawmakers and ministers, along with a news conference on Wednesday.
Spokesman Gregg Dodd of the Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, which manages the Statehouse property, said the board controls only public spaces. He couldn't address why empty committee hearing rooms couldn't have been opened for the crowds. Visitors wanting to attend the hearing after doors were closed were directed to an off-site theater, where the meeting was simulcast.
"It's a sad day for the state of Ohio and the people of Ohio when they can't get into the House they own," said House Democratic Leader Armond Budish. Budish brandished a thick stack of witness slips that were to be delivered to the Senate to show how many people wanted to testify against the bill.
Kasich declined an interview request from the AP. He told CNN: "On the issue of pay and perhaps some other items, I'm not opposed to people being able to talk. Let me just suggest to you that if we do not get a handle on pensions, if we do not get a handle on health care, a lot of these employees could ultimately be left high and dry, and I don't want to see that happen."
No committee vote on the bill is scheduled for this week.
Associated Press Writer JoAnne Viviano contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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