Ohio unions push back

October 10, 2011

Shaun Harkin looks at Ohio labor's impressive fight to repeal a new anti-union law.

THE SHOWDOWN in Ohio over anti-union Senate Bill (SB) 5 is heating up. Some 1,500 union members and supporters attended an October 1 rally in Gallipolis in southeastern Ohio to the effort to gear up for a November 8 statewide referendum on SB 5, now known as Issue 2 after its name on the ballot.

A "no" vote on Issue 2 would repeal the law. At the rally, Pam Smith, a teacher at Westville Elementary in Jackson and member of the Ohio Education Association, said, "I am sick and tired of being treated the way we've been treated." She described SB 5 as "part of a national war against teachers and teachers' associations."

In March, both houses of the Ohio legislature approved the bill, which aims to destroy collective bargaining for Ohio's more than 360,000 public-sector workers across the state, including 180,000 teachers. The Senate voted 17-16 in favor, with the House passing the measure by a 53-44 margin. Newly elected Gov. John Kasich pushed forward with the legislation as part of a wave of right wing-led anti-union initiatives across the Midwest following the Republican gains in last November's elections.

Ohio workers protesting against SB 5
Ohio workers protesting against SB 5

Wisconsin was the epicenter of resistance to the attacks, but unions and their supporters mobilized in large numbers in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan against similar initiatives. In March, thousands of union members and their supporters descended on the Ohio Capitol building in Columbus to oppose passage of the bill. Some 3,000 union members, led by 2,000 firefighters, rallied and booed Kasich's State of the State speech.

In the midst of the economic ruin caused by the Great Recession, and with over half a million unemployed Ohioans, Kasich pushed the same austerity message as politicians across the country. He attempted to demonize union members by claiming that Ohio's deficit-plagued state and local governments could no longer afford the costs of collective bargaining.

His administration claims the state has an $8 billion deficit, but much of it is the result of a self-inflicted 2005 tax reform that cost the state $2 billion in lost revenue per year. Back then, the state corporate tax was drastically cut, along with individual taxes, primarily for the benefit of wealthier Ohioans.

OPPOSITION TO SB 5 has swelled--and no wonder. The 40 provisions contained in SB 5 would essentially gut union rights for public-sector workers. In 2010, 8.4 percent of private-sector workers were unionized in Ohio, compared to 43.1 percent of workers in the public sector.

Ohio State University labor law professor James Brudney explained the bill would cripple collective bargaining and replace it with "collective begging" because the conversation "ends whenever an employer says that it ends." Brudney described what would remain of collective bargaining as an "illusion."

SB 5, which bans public-sector strikes, is even harsher than the anti-union measure passed in Wisconsin earlier this year. Not only does it require that public workers pay at least 15 percent of health insurance premiums, but it also prohibits local governments from picking up any portion of an employee's share of his or her pension contributions. It limits the subjects of mandatory negotiation to wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment--and, for public safety employees and nurses, safety equipment.

Meanwhile, management would gain new powers. SB 5 eliminates final binding arbitration as the means to end contract disputes involving public safety employees and replaces it with a new system for all public employees involving mediation, fact-finding and a public hearing. The legislative body of the government employer makes the final votes on proposals.

The law also cuts workers' compensation by eliminating automatic longevity or step pay increases for most workers in favor of a performance-based pay system. It also weakens union organization by expanding the definition of "supervisor" exempted from collective bargaining to include some firefighters as well as college and university professors.

Further, SB 5 blocks automatic paycheck deduction of "fair share'' fees in lieu of dues from those who refuse to join the workplace union. The law also prohibits seniority from being the sole determinant of the order of layoffs, caps vacation leave and reduces the accrual of sick leave. In addition, the bill promotes privatization by barring union contracts that limit a public-sector employer's ability to privatize operations.

But instead of intimidating labor, the bill has galvanized union members and activists across the state.

The Toledo Blade described how opposition to SB 5 electrified the Northwest Ohio Labor Day rally in downtown Toledo when "thousands of unionized workers and their supporters...city employees to steelworkers to electricians marched in a unified throng of red T-shirts along Summit, Adams, and Huron streets chanting 'No on 2' and carrying signs protesting the state government's attempts to limit public employee union rights." Marchers carried signs reading "Stop the war on workers" and "Public servants, not public serfs."

OHIO LAW required 231,000 signatures to put SB 5 on the ballot as a referendum in November. Thousands of volunteers mobilized across the state to collect an incredible 1.3 million signatures during the summer in an effort coordinated by We Are Ohio, a coalition bringing together Ohio unions, community groups and students.

We Are Ohio spokesperson Melissa Fazekas said, "We originally wanted to collect between 450,000 and 500,000 total signatures. We've blown way past that."

The effort to stop SB 5 unfolded with the backing of the labor movement nationally. In July, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka visited Ohio to pledge the national coalition's "full resources" to defeat SB 5. Millions of dollars have been poured into the referendum campaign and thousands of activist hours. When the signatures were collected, a defiant rally of 6,000 marched through downtown Columbus to deliver the signed petitions to the secretary of state's office. With the petitions counted and the vast majority accepted, the bill is officially suspended and can't be implemented.

Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, mobilized across Ohio to engage union and non-union members, knocking on 70,000 doors and having 25,000 conversations. We Are Ohio spearheaded the signature campaign, defying expectations and demonstrating the depth of opposition to Kasich's plans.

Polls indicate Ohioans favor overturning the new law by a double-digit margin. In August, Kasich, beginning to feel the pressure, offered an "olive-branch" to SB 5's opponents and publicized a meeting aimed at hearing out grievances with the possibility of conciliation and watering down the bill to make it more palatable. The strategy backfired, and Kasich was left sitting in an empty room with only his Republican supporters and the media for company.

SB 5 has become the lightning rod of opposition to Kasich. But his budget plan--with cuts to city and county governments and proposals to double vouchers to private schools--has deepened and widened the opposition on the anti-union law. Kasich's budget cuts funding for schools by 11.5 percent in 2011. Kasich has also discussed privatizing five prisons and a state turnpike. HB 194, another Republican-inspired bill aimed at restricting voting access, is also facing a referendum in November and is helping to fuel activism.

Despite the groundswell of opposition to SB 5, its defeat in November is not guaranteed. Kasich supporters and defenders of the bill have launched an aggressive advertising campaign based on corporate and elite funding. SB 5's backers include the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and its local affiliates; the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses; the Ohio Farm Bureau; and the Ohio Manufacturers Association.

There's no doubt the Republican Party, national think-tanks, rich supporters and right-wing media outlets understand what's at stake, and will do everything they can to ratchet up the campaign to make SB 5 law.

Despite this, however, there's a precedent in Ohio for defeating anti-worker initiatives. Jerry Gordon, writing in Labor Notes, described how in 1997, Ohio's legislature "reformed" workplace injury insurance. The "reform" meant that hundreds of thousands of injured workers would be denied disability benefits, and Ohio employers stood to gain a $200 million tax cut.

Labor mobilized to collect 418,000 signatures to put the new law on the ballot. Though corporations outspent labor by a 7-to-1 margin, the bill was defeated with 1.7 millions Ohioans voting against it, compared to 1.2 million for.

EARLIER THIS year, right-wing legislative initiatives across the Midwest states triggered a labor rebellion. The Midwest uprising displayed the union movement's continued ability to mobilize and fight despite decades of decline, retreat and demoralization.

The militancy and vitality of the mobilizations across the Midwest showed the willingness of workers to fight back, despite years of conservative union leadership and the normalization of concessions from labor. The protests also demonstrated labor's ability to win support from and inspire wider sections of the working class by giving expression and direction to their anger and suffering at unemployment, foreclosures, declining living standards and insecurity.

If SB 5 can be overturned, it will be a tremendous blow to Kasich and his right-wing agenda. Similarly, it could give a tremendous boost to working class and union confidence that the right is a minority and anti-working class initiatives can be defeated, not just in Ohio, but across the nation.

However, winning at the ballot box will not be enough to stop the anti-union onslaught. In the event of the bill's defeat, Kasich and the Republicans will try to push through SB 5's provisions piecemeal in the legislature while they still dominate it.

The Ohio Democratic Party has put its weight behind the anti-SB 5 initiative. But the Democrats are utterly unreliable allies in the fight to defend unions and push back against budget cuts that will hurt the poor and working class. Nationally, where Democrats dominate legislatures, for example, in California, New York and Connecticut, they've led attacks on union rights--and in states where Republicans dominate, Democrats have counseled unions to accept concessions instead of fighting them.

In Wisconsin, for example, labor leaders and their Democratic Party allies pushed to end the occupation of the State Capitol building in Madison and re-directed the outpouring of protest into an electoral strategy of recalling Republicans who supported anti-union initiatives.

Instead of digging in and fighting when labor had momentum and widespread backing, this strategy accepted that Republican Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union initiatives would successfully pass and became a damaging model across the Midwest. And as it turned out, even following an energetic recall campaign, Republicans still hold sway in the Wisconsin legislature.

A different strategy could have unleashed the social power of the working class across the state. Strike action would have made Wisconsin ungovernable and created new networks of working class solidarity, organization and power. A more militant strategy, including calls for a general strike, had wide sympathy among union activists at the center of mobilizing against Walker. Those activists understood that it was their actions and power which created the obstacle to the law going through. A more coordinated network of militants could have turned this sentiment into an effective class offensive.

As a mood of resistance spreads across the country, a different outcome is possible in Ohio today. Defeating SB 5 can give workers confidence to take a stand like Tacoma teachers and longshore workers in Longview, Wash. A victory for labor would be a blow to the right's claim to "represent the people" and inspire other workers that there are millions of people who stand, just like them, for an alternative.

Workers today who are standing up to their employers by refusing to accept concessions and limits on their right to collectively bargain are showing the way forward and sowing the seeds of a reborn, fighting working-class movement.

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