CLEVELAND - With ink hardly dry and more still rolling off the press, tens of thousands of petitions to repeal a drastic union-busting law started being distributed Monday to enthusiastic volunteers in dozens of mass meetings across Ohio. We Are Ohio, the coalition heading the effort, vowed to collect more than double the 231,000 signatures needed by June 30 to place a referendum on the November ballot to discard the measure, known as Senate Bill 5, enacted by the Republican-controlled state legislature and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich March 31.
The bill would abolish the 27-year-old right of public employees to bargain collectively, strike or submit disputes to binding arbitration and would transfer power to set wages, hours, working conditions and benefits to local and state government authorities. The measure would affect over 350,000 workers and set the stage for more far-reaching restrictions in the private sector.
The Ohio AFL-CIO, coordinating 26 events this week, began the counter-attack Monday in eight cities where participants rallied and were instructed on circulating the petitions. Many other training sessions were held or are scheduled by individual unions and community groups.
"Don't ask for whom the bell tolls," Congresswoman Marcia Fudge told over 400 at the event in Cleveland. "They are coming after all of us. We must get this measure on the ballot. We can't afford to lose this fight."
"This is organized labor's fight to take back Ohio for working families," Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, said. "This is an all-out assault. The issue is not just for public employees. The private sector is also standing up. And it's not just about unions or Democrats. This is a fight for the middle class, for all working families."
The presence of many public officials and community groups at the events underscored the widespread concern about the issue.
Brian Davis, director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, said petitions would be circulated at drop in locations and shelters throughout the state.
"The homeless all register to vote when they go into a shelter," he said.
Connie Sapin, state regional coordinator of MoveOn, said her group, with 125,000 on its state email list, would hold its first training session for petition circulators at a restaurant in a Cleveland suburb Sunday.
"In my 36 years as a union member, I have never seen this much momentum against attacks on working families," said Mahoning-Trumbull AFL-CIO president Bill Padisak, referring to the more than 500 who braved a tornado warning to take part in the session at a Niles restaurant Monday. "Workers are not going to sit back and allow Kasich to drive his bus over them," he said. "People are standing up and organizing like never before."
In Ashtabula County over 75 attended the training session at the Laborers Local 245 hall, including members of public, industrial and building trades unions as well as retirees and community groups. As in other meetings, voter registration cards were distributed along with the petitions.
"I have never seen the labor movement so unified," said Ashtabula Central Labor Council president Ray Gruber, Jr. "People are really energized and I know they are ready to hit the streets because they understand Wall Street, not workers, created the economic and budget problems we face." Pressure from constituents, he said, caused the local Republican state representative to vote against the bill.
In Cincinnati, the IBEW Local 212 hall was filled to capacity as over 300 volunteer petition gatherers went through training.
"Like every event we have organized this year, the turnout has been amazing," said labor council executive secretary Doug Sizemore. "People want to take back Ohio from Kasich and the corporate interests that are pushing this attack. We are seeing the development of a movement of not just labor but the community in Southwest Ohio, a movement that sees a better vision for all Ohioans and is acting to make that vision real."
(Wally Kaufman contributed to this story and material also came from an online report of the Ohio AFL-CIO.)
Photo: Labor activists rally against Ohio's Senate Bill 5. Debbie Kline.