Ohio schoolworkers win strike

NEWS ANALYSIS

JEFFERSON, Ohio – The schoolworkers in Jefferson Village in Ashtabula County, Ohio, have won their battle to save their union contract, wages and benefits. The 92 members of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees (OAPSE) Local 419 had been on strike for three months. Negotiations stretched out over a six-month period with the union refusing to accept “massive concessions,” as stated by OAPSE Representative Joe Eck.

Three days after a massive rally at the county fairgrounds, followed by a thousand-strong march through the streets of Jefferson Village, the board signed what Eck described as “a heck of a contract.”

All of the board’s 32 concessionary demands were swept off the table, except for lowering health coverage for all new hires. New employees will now acquire full coverage on a graduated basis based on hours worked. A 50-cent wage increase was won for each of the first two years of the contract, with a wage reopener the third year.

At issue was also the privatization of the public schools. The Jefferson School Board supported the idea being promoted by business interests, that the education of all the children of working families and strengthening public school systems are no longer prime concerns and that business should control the education system.

The path to destroying our public schools and turning school tax money over to private corporations requires that union contracts covering schoolworkers and teachers be eliminated and their unions broken. A bill introduced into the Ohio State Senate (SB-194) is aimed at doing exactly that.

What the businessmen who make up the Jefferson School Board didn’t count on during the strike was the determination of the school workers to stand up for their rights and the tremendous support given to Local 419 by OAPSE and the entire labor movement statewide.

Parents and students rallied around the workers who took care of their schools, provided services and health care and drove their buses. A parents’ committee was organized that published figures showing the board was squandering a half million dollars of taxpayer money on an out-of-state strikebreaking outfit, Huffmaster Crises Management. Parents began turning in payment vouchers for transporting their children and bagging their school lunches, which state law requires the board to provide.

The high school’s student newspaper published reports of filthy restrooms and cafeterias. Letters poured into local newspapers from students and parents, complaining of lack of health care and counselors. Political and religious leaders intervened to help get the strike settled. School board meetings were packed with hundreds of students, parents and irate taxpayers demanding the board members do some serious negotiating with the union and get the workers back in the schools.

The political capital gained for organized labor in winning this strike has great significance for workers throughout the county and beyond. The mobilization of labor and community forces in support of the schoolworkers has created a momentum that will be carried into elections this year.

The parents’ committee is working on a legal petition to have board members removed from office and is discussing board candidates. The Ashtabula labor movement is planning to examine all candidates for public office from the perspective of where they stand on a Workers’ Bill of Rights, as has been done with great success in Cleveland. Working class candidates for targeted races are being sought.

The position of school teachers, and workers in public and private industry, facing new contract negotiations is stronger. Building Trades unions have a better chance of turning back recent encroachments by non-union construction employers. Non-union workers will gain more confidence to organize.

The 92 schoolworkers who stood their ground, enduring great personal hardship, struck a powerful blow that will benefit all working people. The fact that 80 percent of them are women, many single mothers, makes their achievement all the more laudable. Added to walking picket lines and loss of income, these workers had to find child care, set up food banks and a strike fund.

Labor federations throughout Northeast Ohio were involved in organizing support and helping build rallies and the Jefferson march, and they are celebrating along with the Jefferson school workers. The story of this strike and how it was won will be studied by union leaders throughout the state.