CLEVELAND - The jam-packed AFL-CIO meeting hall here resounded with chants of "Vote No on Issue 2," Oct. 29. Speakers urged the crowd to mobilize a huge vote in the Nov. 8 election to defeat Issue 2 and thereby repeal SB 5, the law that strips public employees of collective bargaining rights.
Steelworker Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, welcomed the crowd, calling out the names of private sector and public sector unions, as well as industrial and building trades unions that have joined in the statewide grassroots drive to restore union rights for teachers, firefighters, police officers and other public workers by repealing SB 5. The crowd of 700 also included members of Cleveland Jobs with Justice and a delegation from the Occupy Cleveland movement that has occupied the city's Public Square since October 5.
Private sector workers "understand that an attack on public sector workers is an attack on all workers. We have solidarity in the house," Burga thundered.
At a time when workers are suffering massive layoffs and are looking to the state and federal government to create jobs, "the governor chose a different path," said Burga. He charged that Republican Gov. John Kasich unleashed an anti-labor offensive "that lowers the bar for workers, that continues the race to the bottom."
Jabbing his finger in the air Burga demanded, "Are we going to turn back Issue 2 and make history?" The crowd roared, "Yes!" and took up the chant, "NO on 2!"
Cleveland Teachers Union President David Quolke hailed the fired-up teachers, hundreds of them in the crowd, for telephoning 310,000 people statewide to get voters out to repeal SB 5.
"We need to turn this moment into a movement," he said. "We are going to beat Issue 2. This is not the end, it is the start of solidarity in this movement. It's about our families, our communities."
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said she has traversed the country, going to lower Manhattan to join the Wall Street occupiers, to Madison, Wis., to meet with teachers fighting Gov. Scott Walker's drive to bust the unions and slash education funding to the bone. Yet the highpoint, she said, was walking into Cleveland's labor temple to be greeted by this crowd.
She praised the heroic effort to collect 1.3 million signatures to put Issue 2 on the ballot. "The tenacity, the perseverance, the solidarity, in this hall is what is transforming it into a movement. It's not just Ohio ... it is what we are fighting for, it is whether this country will be what it is supposed to be ... What we want is dignity and respect. But to get it we need a voice: A democratic labor movement."
Weingarten cited polls showing strong majority support for repeal of SB 5. Yet she warned against the lulling effect of those polls. "Will you be lulled?"
Again the crowd roared, "Hell NO!"
Standing in the crowd wearing his firefighter helmet was Pat Kinyon, a 15-year veteran firefighter in a Cleveland suburb. He commented on "Grannygate," a scandal that involves right-wing misuse of a TV ad featuring Marlene Quinn of Cincinnati thanking firefighters for saving the life of her great granddaughter in a house fire a year ago. She ends with an appeal that voters "Vote No on Issue 2."
The pro-SB-5 campaign, bankrolled by the Republican Governors Association and the billionaire Koch brothers, stole the ad, deleted Quinn's call for repeal of SB 5 and spliced in the voice of another woman saying, "Vote YES on Issue 2."
Said Kinyon, "It's despicable that they would twist a grandmother's words that meant so much to her. It shows how low they will stoop to try to show grassroots support they don't have."
Stripping firefighters of their collective bargaining rights is a safety issue for the community, he said. "When we lose collective bargaining, we lose the ability to stop their reductions in manning."
Standing beside him was Mike Norman, secretary of the 800-member Cleveland Fire Fighters Local 93. Asked to comment about firefighters emerging as heroes of the labor movement in recent months, Norman replied, "The challenge for us is to convert the goodwill that people feel toward firefighters into political capital, into votes."
"A lot of other unions have a longer history of political culture than we do," Norman said. "We have a lot of Republican members and this has been an awakening for them. They are seeing the importance of unions, of workers standing together. We need a bigger, broader conversation of how workers will be treated, how will we earn a livable wage, what rights we have."
The meeting adjourned and the crowd union fanned out across Cleveland and its suburbs to knock on doors urging voters to get out to the polls Nov. 8 and "Vote NO on Issue 2."
Photo: Labor activists gather behind a sign saying, "Stop the War on Workers," during an AFL-CIO Oct. 29th rally in Cleveland as they prepare to knock doors asking voters to vote No on Issue 2. Tim Wheeler/PW.