Ohio fights attack on labor

Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, the state AFL-CIO and its affiliates have called for a massive turnout for a rally Tuesday at the Statehouse in Columbus to protest a Republican bill to repeal collective bargaining for public employees.

In robocalls and emails sent throughout the state, Strickland said “the fate of Ohio’s middle class is on the line” and urged people “to join with the thousands who will gather to oppose Senate Bill 5 and the rest of our opponents’ backward agenda.”

The agenda of Gov. John Kasich, who narrowly defeated Strickland in November, includes drastic cuts in health and education programs, abolishing the state’s tax on large inheritances, privatizing agencies, such as the turnpike and prisons, curtailing reproductive freedom and restricting rights of immigrants.

“The people of Wisconsin are standing up and speaking out,” Strickland said. “We must do likewise. We must defend the people of our state.”

The radical measure to abolish the right, established in 1984, of public employees to bargain over wages, hours, working conditions, health care, and pensions, would also eliminate seniority as a basis for pay increases and layoffs, increase employee contributions to health care and pensions, abolish the right to strike and allow the state to permanently replace workers who do strike.

Rallies at the Statehouse have grown continuously since hearings on the bill began Feb. 9. Eight hundred, mainly members of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, representing state workers came for the first hearing. The following week 2,000, including teachers, public school employees and city and county workers, came to the second and nearly 4,000 rallied last Thursday, including many steel, auto, building trades and other private sector unions and community supporters, at the third hearing.

A small group of tea party members, wearing red, showed up to support the bill at the second hearing and promised to “bring thousands” to the third but the unions answered by printing up and wearing red t-shirts reading “No on SB 5” and “Kill the Bill” at the third hearing, and shouting “Red means No” as rightwing Tea Party representatives testified on the need to curtail “big government.” Only a few dozen teabaggers ventured into the crowd.

Within a sea of “Vote No on SB 5” signs, some carried homemade placards reading “Union Rights are Human Rights,” “Hitler Outlawed Unions in ’33, Kasich wants to in 2011” and “Bargaining works for Everyone, Ending it Works for Millionaires.”

Former State Representative Sue Morano, a nurse in Lorain and member of the Service Employees International Union, was in the crowd.

“This is not just about unions,” she said, “it’s about communities. Who do these Republicans think will be buying goods at local stores if unions are busted? If workers lose health care and pensions, it will cripple the tax base. This is what they put up as a solution. This is a Depression-maker!”

The first hearings dealt with testimony from the bill’s supporters, including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, rural school superintendents and other public officials claiming government bodies could not afford union-won wages and benefits, even though thousands of contracts have been mutually agreed to and strikes sharply reduced over the past 27 years that the current law has been in effect.

Also speaking on behalf of the bill was Rebecca Heimlich, Ohio State Director of Americans for Prosperity, the group founded by oil billionaires Charles and David Koch, who many believe are coordinating the national anti-labor offensive. Heimlich repeated the claim often made by Republicans that public employees are paid more than their private sector counterparts. This was later debunked by Amy Hanauer, director of Policy Matters Ohio, who presented research showing that public employees in Ohio are paid 5.7% less than comparable private sector workers.

Opponents of the bill began testifying in the afternoon and continued late into the night.

With the hearing room holding only about 60 people, some 3,000 protesters filled the capitol building’s atrium, rotunda and adjacent stairwells Thursday where proceedings were broadcast. Nearly a thousand others heard the testimony from loudspeakers as they stood outside in unseasonably warm weather on the west lawn.

A huge roar went up as Strickland arrived and made his way through the crowded atrium shaking hands and encouraging the protesters, who began chanting “Bring Back Ted!”

Union activists said they would immediately launch a repeal referendum if the bill is passed and some urged a referendum to recall Kasich. Although he won the election with claims he would be better able to create jobs, Kasich’s approval ratings plummeted to around 35 per cent after he announced his union busting plans and slash and burn budget proposals.

The uproar over SB 5 and similar legislation pushed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has
caused a growing number of Republican Senators to break ranks and oppose all or parts of the Ohio bill.

“I have been a strong supporter of collective bargaining my whole live and I’m not about to change now,” Republican Sen. Scott Oelslager of Canton told the Columbus Dispatch.

Unions are urging members to build pressure on Republican legislators with phone calls and emails.

Tuesday’s rally, preceding the fourth hearing will be the first time unions are bringing buses from throughout the state, reactivating phone banks used during election campaigns and email rapid response networks to mobilize members against Kasich’s program. Police, firefighters, service employees, auto workers and teachers unions are among those organizing buses. Organize for America, President Barack Obama’s campaign group, is working to fill buses from seven cities and MoveOn, the national progressive group with an email list of 120,000 in Ohio, is mobilizing its members. It is expected that, aside from Strickland, Democratic members of the state’s U.S. Congressional delegation will also take part.

Bruce Bostick contributed to this story.

Photo: Rick Nagin





Rick Nagin
Rick Nagin

Rick Nagin has written for People's World and its predecessors since 1970. He has been active for many years in Cleveland politics and the labor movement.