Ohio Issue 2: A Different Kind of Campaign

This fall, for the first time, the issue of collective bargaining was placed directly before voters.  And when more than 61% of Ohioans voted to protect collective bargaining rights and rejected the arguments of the Governor they had elected just a year earlier and of groups like Citizen’s United, it was the workers who had been central in the campaign who announced the victory.  No politicians spoke on stage at the celebration event that night.  No labor leaders.  No national leaders.  It was instead the workers themselves who spoke the words of triumph at the victory party.  This was clearly a very different campaign.

The resistance began quickly over Ohio Governor John Kasich’s 302-page bill – Senate Bill 5 — that eviscerated public sector bargaining.  The extreme bill went even further than other states had dared to go: it would abolish binding arbitration, outlaw fair share provisions, declare strikes unlawful, and completely eliminate many key issues from collective bargaining, including health care plan design, privatization, and staffing levels. Thousands of public and private sector union members and their allies showed up for rallies and hearings at the statehouse.

After the Governor padlocked the doors of the People’s House and pushed the bill through, over 10,000 volunteers collected signatures on petitions to bring the issue to the ballot.  Those petitions filled a semi-truck that was the focus of a terrific parade, delivering the boxes representing Ohio voters’ commitment to worker justice to the Secretary of State’s office.  The mood was festive, proud, and industrial.  My wife (an AFSCME member), two of my daughters, and I marched behind the lawmakers who had voted against SB5.  The Ohio Secretary of State’s office had to stop the petitions from coming into their office until a structural engineer assured us that the office building floor could withstand the weight of the boxes of justice.

Community support grew throughout the campaign with the help of our Outreach Director Karen Gasper.  Much of that support came from churches across the state.  African-American churches brought their members to the polls for early voting.  A Youngstown Catholic Church sponsored a “Blue Mass” for the police, but the special service soon expanded to include other public servants all dressed in blue.  Many faith-based groups, including Lift Dayton and St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Cleveland, held educational forums that brought out scores of members and supporters.  Toledo worshipers held a large event to bring those of faith together in their efforts to defeat Issue 2.  The United Church of Christ spoke out forcefully in opposition to SB 5.  The Catholic Bishops posted social teaching on their website to educate Catholics about the issue.

The effort pushed forward to include student organizers on Ohio college campuses.  The bill would have gutted all collective bargaining rights for a large percentage of faculty, even as a potential strike at Youngstown State University and an organizing campaign at University of Akron during the campaign demonstrated the power of collective bargaining in higher education.

Safety forces pulled together to host anti-SB5 events throughout the state.  Rallies were held with incredible turnout rates in rural areas of Ohio.  Harley riders circled the Statehouse on their hogs.  Workers spoke out and wrote letters to the editors.  Elected officials who voted against Senate Bill 5 were especially helpful in many areas of the state, including some Republicans.  It was truly an 88-county campaign of working people and their allies pulling together in unity.

We did face some challenges to that unity. When Governor Kasich and his friends went after voters’ rights, many African-American leaders called upon labor to lead a citizen’s veto against what is being called the “Voter Suppression Act.” While still fighting SB5, a new coalition was built linking organized labor with African-American organizations in ways that I have never seen in Ohio.  SB5 volunteers circulated petitions fighting the voter suppression bill, and what had started as an obstacle to unity became the glue. By Election Day, 93% of African Americans voted to overturn SB5, according to a poll conducted by the AFL-CIO.

Throughout the petition drive and the campaign on Issue 2 (as SB5 was identified on the November ballot), the Ohio Democratic Party stood firmly on the side of workers.  The Party worked hard to collect signatures, recruit volunteers, and get out no votes on Issue 2.  The ODP brought out nearly 5,000 volunteers to add to the ranks recruited by labor and community organizations. It was an impressive effort that demonstrates the values of the Party, even in a nonpartisan election.

Of course, on the ground organizing is only one part of politics today.  The media campaign over SB5 was also worker-centered. Action-packed ads, produced by The New Media Firm, featured Ohio workers, citizens who explained why they valued those workers, and an ad featuring Ohio hero John Glenn urging Ohio voters to stand up for our “everyday heroes” by voting no.

One of those ads featured 78-year-old Marlene Quinn, who told the story of how her great-granddaughter was saved by Cincinnati firefighters.  The other side recognized the power of that story, so they sliced her words and added material to create an ad in which Quinn seemed to support Issue 2.  Thirty television stations pulled the offensive ad with the stolen, remixed story. .  Yet, even as the political firestorm coined “Grannygate” was burning, Governor Kasich expressed his support for the tactic.

The ads and mailers supporting SB5 were, to a large extent, made possible by outside money, though we will never know exactly how much or where it came from. Most groups supporting the bill will not disclose their funders. Undisclosed amounts of out-of-state cash poured in through groups such as Citizens United (the Citizens United) and the Alliance for American Future. The Alliance flooded the state with mail marked with a Virginia return address that was linked back to former Vice President Chaney’s daughter. The Ohio Liberty Council (a Tea Party group), the Republican Governor’s Association, and the Ohio Republican Party also jumped into the fray.

New media also demonstrated the intensity on our side.  The pro-Issue 2 “Building a Better Ohio’s” Facebook page had 4,368 likes and comments from 1,488 people.  Those numbers were dwarfed by the more than 100,000 likes and 10,847 comments on We Are Ohio’s page opposing SB5.  Our new media program yielded incredible support, including over 11,000 contributors.

In the end, more Ohioans cast votes against Governor Kasich’s top initiative than they did for Governor Kasich a year earlier.  It was a blow away election, with workers winning 61.3% of the vote, including the majority of the vote in 82 out of 88 counties. Participation was higher in this off-year general election than in any other in the history of Ohio.

While union members were incredibly supportive, with an overwhelming 86% showing their solidarity against SB5, 57% of independent voters stood with them.  An even stronger message to the Governor is that 30% of Republicans voted against Issue 2.  Indeed, 26% of those who voted for Kasich just a year ago voted no on Issue 2.

Ohio history suggests that the vote on Issue 2 might predict a larger change in the state’s political climate. In 1958 working people were also campaigning for voters to reject Issue 2.  That year, Issue 2 was a Right-to-Work law.  Two thirds of all Ohioans voted against that issue. Voters also tossed out all the elected officials who had supported the anti-union initiative. It was a clean sweep that tamed anti-worker Ohio politicians for years.  But one need not look back 50 years to know how these out of touch politicians might be punished now. Polls show that the majority of voters will punish legislators who continue to press issues that were in SB5, even the more “popular” parts of it.  Just look to this year’s council elections in Cincinnati.  All four council members who had supported Issue 2 lost their reelection bids.  Perhaps Governor Kasich is lucky that he doesn’t come up for reelection until 2014.

It does seem as if he may have heard the voters’ message. The week after Election Day, the Governor might have shown he is changing his approach; he reached an agreement with the largest state union after just a couple of sessions. The agreement freezes wages for three years but restores step increases and furlough days. He also started to talk more seriously about one of his key campaign issues – jobs.

John W. Ryan

John W. Ryan was first elected president of Cleveland area’s CWA Local 4309 in 1981 at age 21 and was later the principal officer of the Cleveland AFL-CIO Federation of Labor; he served as senior consultant to We Are Ohio and is State Director for U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown.

Fighting for More than A Contract

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