Columbus, Ohio (CNN) -- In their bruising fight over collective-bargaining rights with Ohio's governor, police and firefighter unions have put their battle cry on a bumper sticker, "Help the Middle Class, Ticket Kasich."
The one-liner is a reference to a 3-year-old routine traffic stop that Gov. John Kasich would rather forget.
In 2008, Kasich was pulled over by Columbus police Officer Robert Barrett for failing to change lanes while passing an emergency vehicle with its lights flashing.
Flash forward to 2011. Days after being sworn in as governor, the longtime Republican politician ridiculed the citation he received, telling a group of state employees that Barrett was an example of poor public service.
"He's an idiot," Kasich yelled in a videotaped speech that has since spread quickly from YouTube to local Ohio newscasts to Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."
Barrett still has a copy of the video from his cruiser camera that rolled on Kasich's traffic violation. "What bothers me about this is he was treated professionally," Barrett told CNN.
The Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio and other public worker unions see the incident as a window into Kasich's attitudes toward public servants.
"Police officers are used to being called names. I don't think they're used to being called names by the governor of the state where they work," said Mike Taylor, spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police.
Kasich has since apologized to Barrett. In an interview with CNN, he insisted his push to limit collective-bargaining rights for state employees is not personal.
"Not with me. I understand people who are concerned and upset. And I respect them," Kasich said.
The controversial legislation would weaken collective-bargaining rights by barring Ohio's 360,000 public employees from striking and allowing state workers to decline to pay union dues. It's expected to pass the state's Republican-controlled Legislature and reach the governor's desk this week.
Kasich argues the bill is crucial to closing an $8 billion budget shortfall and bringing public worker benefits in line with those in the private sector.
"These are people who don't want any change. They have a good situation. And they don't want it to change," Kasich said, referring to his state's workers.
The GOP governor has seen his popularity plummet in recent weeks. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found 30 percent of Ohioans approve of Kasich's performance.
A lifelong fiscal hawk, Kasich responds by pointing to his pivotal role in balancing the federal budget in the 1990s as chairman of the powerful U.S. House Budget Committee.
These days he's on the front lines of a new budget battle between Midwestern public sector unions and the region's fresh crop of Tea Party-backed Republican governors. Kasich told CNN he sometimes chats on the phone with his gubernatorial brethren about the high-stakes clashes playing out in statehouses from Columbus to Madison, Wisconsin.
"I always anticipated that there would be pushback," Kasich said, brushing off the latest poll numbers.
"I am aware of the polls, but my job is to lift Ohio," the governor added, pointing to more pressing metrics. The state has lost 400,000 jobs since 2006.
The state's public worker unions aren't backing down either. They plan to put a referendum on the ballot this fall to overturn the collective-bargaining bill.
There are signs the battle in this bellwether state could linger into 2012. The Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio warns many of its conservative members are leaving the GOP, concerned the Republican governors are turning the Rust Belt into the "Bust Belt."
"I've heard from a lot of lifelong Republican police officers who have said that they will never vote for a Republican again," Taylor said.