While Wisconsin drew most of the national media attention as the home front of the battle over collective bargaining for public sector workers, what’s happening in Ohio is every bit as significant and interesting. Ignoring weeks of protests in the state capitol and around the state, and despite divisions within the Ohio Republican delegations, the Ohio legislature passed Senate Bill 5 in March. The bill would place tight limits on collective bargaining for most public employees, and it would ban it entirely for college professors (using the language from the Yeshiva Decision that defines us as managers). By June, almost a million people had signed petitions to put the measure on the ballot in November, giving voters the opportunity to overturn the bill – something we can do in Ohio that isn’t an option in Wisconsin.
The petition drive involved unions across the state, as well as community and religious organizations, while local chambers of commerce, businesses, and even the state’s university presidents either overtly advocated for SB5 or insisted on “remaining neutral” and thus passively embraced it . Those same divisions are playing out as the campaign heats up heading toward November.
For public sector unions, this has been a tough time. No one wants to make organized labor or collective bargaining look bad right now. The Ohio Education Association, for example, has encouraged its locals to settle on contracts, no matter how bad, early in the game, and many have complied.
Here at Youngstown State University, we’re living with the political ramifications of this bill right now. The faculty union, an OEA affiliate, first accepted the recommendations of an external fact finder, which included small pay raises, a large increase in our health care costs, and a small cut in pay for teaching summer courses. We said yes, agreeing to accept what amounted to major concessions, but the Board of Trustees rejected the fact-finder’s report, demanding even greater “shared sacrifice” from the faculty. Their counterproposal asked for cuts of up to $7500 in a single year for some, though their public statements insisted that most faculty would lose less than $1000. Much of that loss comes in summer pay, which affects only faculty, not administrators or other staff. So much for “shared sacrifice.”
Clearly, the upcoming referendum on SB5 has created an especially difficult context for unions. Some have speculated that the Board of Trustees (most of whom were appointed by Republican governors) is playing hard ball at the request, advice, or encouragement of the Governor or other Republican leaders who hope that a strike by YSU faculty will illustrate the need for this bill. Others are encouraging the faculty to give in to avoid generating public resentment that could lead to a bad outcome in November. No doubt, every public sector worker in Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and other states with similar laws must be feeling the pressure to make organized labor look good. But should we make every concession we’re asked for, in order to show that unions are reasonable and willing to do our part to balance state and local budgets? If we do that, aren’t we also willingly contributing to the loss of power for workers and for unions?
Some organizers of the campaign to overturn SB5 have encouraged us to avoid making trouble, but I would argue that the situation at YSU offers a great illustration of why collective bargaining is so important. What’s happening here illustrates just how bad SB5 and similar bills will be for public sector workers. If we were not allowed to bargain, the administration would have imposed much bigger cuts. YSU faculty are already the second-lowest paid in Ohio, and under SB5 we’d be solidly at the bottom, with no recourse whatsoever.
At the same time, we illustrate that collective bargaining works, not only for workers but for employers. After all, our negotiations have already been built around concessions, not demands for increased salaries. Further, in exercising our labor rights – by going to fact finding, by holding democratic votes on the proposals, by authorizing a strike and ultimately deciding not to strike, by filing unfair labor practices – we are working through a process that protects us even as it limits some of what we can do. To my mind, we make a great poster child for public sector bargaining.
For an academic activist who is also deeply engaged in teaching, this has been an especially difficult time. On the one hand, I’m ready to push this fight as hard as I can, because what happens here matters not only for us but for public workers across the state. On the other hand, the threat of a strike – and that remains a possibility – creates real difficulties for students. The University administration has already shown that it is willing to put our students at risk in its effort to force even greater concessions from the faculty. A week before classes were due to start, YSU announced that it was putting a hold on financial aid, claiming that they could not say with confidence when school would start because the faculty had filed a strike notice. They had never done this before, despite strike authorizations in previous rounds of negotiations or during an actual strike in 2005. While assuring students of the administration’s concern, YSU had prepared alternative schedules and a website full of information, and they had sent threatening messages to members of other campus unions insisting that they were required to cross the picket lines. The faculty union refused to play along, and after voting down the administration’s “last best offer,” we decided not to strike. Instead, we are back in the classroom, working under the provisions of the old contract and trying to continue negotiations.
Some students responded exactly as the administration must have hoped: blaming the faculty and creating a facebook page that included many statements by students vowing to vote in support of SB5 because of this. But others were not reeled in. Instead, they organized. They created a facebook page, YSU Students for Faculty (which now has almost 900 members), but they also held protests, conducted a letter-writing campaign, and challenged the University administration to treat its workers fairly. They analyzed the administration’s actions and communications, and they have used a wide range of tools, from social media to filing public records requests to showing up and trying to ask questions at a Board of Trustees press conference last week. They are also working with the campaign against SB5.
As the students have made clear, this is a case where politics are not entirely local. What happens here may well affect the statewide vote in November, and of course, I hope it will make clear to anyone who’s unsure about the issue that unions are our best, maybe even our only, tool to protect the rights of workers. But while the dispute at YSU and the debate over SB5 are inherently political, they also serve as learning opportunities. The discussion among the students — and even on local talk radio — has encompassed why people should vote to overturn SB5, what’s happening to workers and universities across the country, the sad state of the American dream, and the real purpose of a college degree. Those conversations remind us that the fate of public sector workers – educators, clerical workers, safety officers, health care workers – is not just about our income or benefits. It’s about the public good.
Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies