COLUMBUS, Ohio - As rallies, town hall meetings and teach-ins spread throughout the state up to 10,000 Ohioans converged on the Statehouse here Tuesday to protest a Republican bill to repeal public employees' right to bargain collectively.
It was hard to estimate the size of the crowd that rallied on two sides of the building and filled the atrium and rotunda inside, as well as a large room in another state building where the fourth hearing on the measure, Senate Bill 5, was broadcast. In addition, the ranks of the demonstrators, some of whom arrived as early as 7:30 a.m., continually changed as buses came and left throughout the day. A large flood of Columbus area teachers appeared when school let out. (See related story: "Ohio workers, students: Why we fight")
Rattled by steadily growing demonstrations at previous hearings in the past two weeks, the Republicans tried to discourage and disperse the unprecedented mobilization. Many demonstrators were locked out in the early afternoon on false grounds that the Capitol building was over capacity. There were continual chants of "This is our house" and "Let us in," but the doors only reopened shortly before the hearing began at 4 p.m. when Democratic legislators sought a court order.
Although the hearing that day was supposed to be allocated to opponents of the bill, the session opened with lengthy presentations by supporters including from the management office of the state universities and the ultra-right-wing tea party. The state AFL-CIO charged that many opponents were denied the right to testify and that e-mails from union members to Republican legislators were being blocked.
In fact, the Republicans have been inundated by opponents' calls and e-mails, encouraged by phone banks of unions and Organizing for America, President Barack Obama's campaign group. Some Republicans have broken ranks and come out against the bill and others are wavering. OCSEA, the union representing most state workers, reported that a proposal has been made to reinstate the right to negotiate wages but not benefits or conditions of employment. This is seen as an attempt by Republican Gov. John Kasich to stop GOP defections as well as possibly divide Democrats.
Former Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat who was narrowly defeated by Kasich in November, was given a hero's welcome as he made his way through the crowds inside and outside the Capitol.
"Bring back Ted," the people chanted.
"This is nothing but a political power grab," Strickland said. "An attempt (by the Republicans) to consolidate power and diminish the rights of working people all in the guise of fiscal restraint. There is an attitude of elitism, arrogance and disrespect."
"This is about dignity, it's about respect," the former governor said, speaking from the balcony of the Capitol atrium to the crowd below. "I will be here as long as it takes," he said to deafening cheers as people chanted, "Kill the bill," "We want respect!" and "Recall Kasich."
Strickland, who had sent robocalls and e-mails to mobilize for the protest, was accompanied by U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan from Youngstown. Two other Democratic members of Congress, Betty Sutton and Dennis Kucinich, also took part.
The demonstrators from towns and cities throughout the state included contingents from virtually every union, in both the public and private sector, as well as students from many state universities, retirees and ordinary citizens, many brought by buses from Democratic Party offices. They held union banners and printed signs saying "Stop SB 5" and "Save Collective Bargaining," as well as many imaginative homemade placards.
"Welcome to Kasichistan," read one. "K-SICK You make ME-SICK," read another. A teacher held a sign reading, "In our school we call this bullying."
Many had been in town hall meetings involving thousands protesting SB 5 the previous day in Youngstown, Dayton, Toledo and Cincinnati. Kasich, speaking at a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce, faced 1,000 demonstrators the night before in Canton.
Tired and weary from the long day in at the Capitol, two union officials reported being stopped by police for traffic violations in Columbus and Cleveland on their way home. When they explained where they had been, the officers, whose unions took part in the protest, waved them on with one saying, "This is your lucky day."
It seems that actions are happening almost daily somewhere in the state. Students at Cleveland State University have called a rally against SB 5 at noon Thursday, Feb. 24, in the city's Public Square. The Lorain County Central Labor Council is holding rallies the same day in Elyria and Lorain. Next Wednesday, March 2, students at Ohio University plan a teach-in and film showing.
There is widespread understanding that the anti-labor attack in Ohio is part of a coordinated national offensive occurring in other states like Wisconsin, Indiana and New Jersey with radical right-wing governors. This was underscored Wednesday with the prank phone call to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker from someone posing as right-wing oil billionaire David Koch, a funder of groups promoting elimination of union bargaining rights. In the call, Walker, facing continual massive Statehouse protests against similar legislation, admitted he and Kasich are in daily contact.
Photo: Debbie Kline