Will Ohio Democrats Sell Out Workers Again?

The State of Ohio provides several forms of public assistance, including Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance through the Ohio Works First Program.  Medicaid is the largest line item in the Ohio budget. Through these direct supports to low-wage workers, the state also indirectly subsidizes employers.  They can get away with paying low wages or not providing health insurance because they know that workers can turn to the state. Some even help their workers sign up for state assistance.  The biggest recipient of this form of corporate welfare in Ohio is Wal-Mart. According to the Ohio Depart of Jobs and Family Services, 15,000 Ohio employees receive Medicaid and 12,000 receive food bank assistance. In 2009, this amounted to an estimated $67 million subsidy.  That makes Wal-Mart the biggest “welfare queen” in Ohio.

Over the last four years, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland administratively required the Department of Jobs and Family Services to report on how much the State was subsidizing various corporations. The Republicans who now control the Ohio House, Senate, and statewide offices, including Governor, won’t continue that practice.

Knowing that this would happen, State Representative Bob Hagan (D-Youngstown) attempted to codify the practice by introducing legislation that would have required companies with 50 or more employees to report how many receive public assistance.  During the lame duck session in December 2010, the legislation made it out of the House State Government Committee and to the House floor.  With Republicans controlling the Ohio Senate, it had little chance of passing, but its journey through the House is a reflection of the disconnect between Ohio Democrats and their core constituencies.

The bill barely got enough votes in Hagan’s Comittee, and even though Committee support reflected party affiliations, when it reached the Democratic caucus,  three Representatives refused to support it because they feared offending the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the Ohio Manufacturing Association. Democratic party operatives reported that one Democrat Representative, Josh O’Farrell, who had just lost a reelection race, said that he wanted the Chamber of Commerce support should he run for election in the future.  The Chamber had taken no position in his race in the 2010 election.  Another Democrat, Representative John Carney, spoke against it in the Democrat Caucus and walked off the floor just prior to vote – a move referred to as “going to the duck pond.”  Democrat Representative Stephen Slesnick said the bill was anti-business and refused to vote for it.  That Ohio Democrats sold out on a bill that merely required that the public be informed of indirect state subsidies to corporations, a bill they knew had no chance of passing, did not surprise many in the Democratic base.

Given the debacle of health care reform, inaction on the Employee Free Choice Act, and the Wall Street bailout, it is easy to understand why Democratic voters simply did not show up in the November election in Ohio and elsewhere.  With confidence in Democrats at such a low point, many agree with Paul Krugman and Robin Wells who have suggested in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, it is only a matter of time until that the Democrats will ultimately sell out on social security.  Many Ohio public sector workers now feel the same way, as the attack on the public sector grows.

The base has little hope that they can count on Democrats to fight against the mounting attack on public employees.  Around the country, Republicans are going after public sector pensions and bargaining laws, taking aim at workers who often earn less than their private sector counterparts, heaping scorn on hard-working men and women who fight fires, care for the elderly, and teach our children.   If they don’t stand up for these workers, Democrats will be walking away from their base. According to the Economic Policy Institute, public sector workers are more likely to be female and black than are workers in the private sector, and they are also more likely to belong to unions.

Even as they seek to cut public sector jobs and benefits to those workers who will remain, Republicans tout their job creation initiatives, many of which amount to corporate welfare.  It’s easier to blame public sector workers – women and people of color, after all — for draining state budgets than take responsibility for the results of tax breaks to corporations and tax cuts to state residents.

We need our Democratic representatives to fight for Ohio’s workers.  But facing worries over their own re-elections and the endless challenge of raising money to fund campaigns, Ohio Democrats find themselves confused and disoriented.  Those who do speak out feel as if they’re in an echo chamber in Columbus, talking to themselves. Without leadership and/or a coherent plan, they are doomed to irrelevance.  And did I mention the looming battle over redistricting, a process that will shape the state’s political future for the next decade?

What should the Ohio Democrats do?  First, when the Republicans propose cuts to primary, secondary, and higher education, the Democrats need to formulate ballot initiatives and use the referendum process to roll them back. If Republicans attempt to undermine state bargaining laws or prevailing wage rules, or if they try to enact “right to work” laws, Democrats should take the issues directly to the voters.  No matter what the Republicans do, Democrats must fight back – not for the sake of fighting but to defend Ohio’s workers and their families.

This strategy has several advantages.  First, ballot issues have the ability to inspire and motivate constituent groups, especially the Democrat base who could become even more dispirited as Democrats lose vote after vote in the legislature.  They provide a way to get the message out, to mobilize and engage community and labor groups.  By going to the voters, Democrats can step outside the Columbus echo chamber. People will listen to the debates that accompany ballot initiatives and the referendum process.

Furthermore, Democrats will be able to raise money and organize around ballot issues. If they can propose the right issues and demonstrate their willingness and ability to fight for them, progressive funders will respond, because they want to prove that the voters aren’t “working-class idiots” who want to dismantle the government.

Best of all, going directly to voters does more than demonstrate commitment or inspire support.  They can work.  Just look at the coalition that came together to enact the minimum wage amendment in Ohio last year.  The odds don’t look good, but if they are willing to fight, Ohio’s Democrats have a chance to regain the support of workers.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies