Pushed Too Far, Ohio Labor Gears for Fight

Long the gauge by which national political trends are measured, Ohio is now becoming a pivotal testing ground for the labor movement.

The state’s new extreme right-wing governor, John Kasich, backed by new Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature, is leading a high-profile effort to demolish public employee unions, while gouging holes in the state’s already weak public safety net.

Organized labor is responding with a series of mobilizations across the state with community allies. With anti-union initiatives on the rise in state after state, there’s a lot at stake.

Front and center in the offensive is a 476-page bill that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for state employees, including those in higher education.

Local government employees and teachers would retain the right to bargain contracts, but with sharp limitations. Existing salary schedules and step systems would be replaced by “merit pay.” Health care plans could no longer be bargained, and all government employees—state and local—would have to pay at least 20 percent of the cost.

Newly hired teachers would no longer receive continuing contracts, leaving their job futures at the whim of administrators year after year. Public employers could terminate, modify, or renegotiate union contracts in cases of “fiscal emergency.” Ohio’s $8 billion deficit could arguably be deemed an emergency now.

HIS WAY OR THE HIGHWAY

Unions are not the only targets. All Ohioans who use public services—especially the unemployed, the aged, the disabled, and children—will be in for tougher times.

As everywhere in the U.S., Ohio’s budget and social safety net have been damaged as state revenues nose-dived in the recession. Now, just when Ohioans need more services—and people to deliver them—conservative lawmakers seek to advance their agenda, battering public services and restructuring the terms of public-sector work.

Ohio’s declining tax revenues are due both to the recession and to years of tax cuts favoring corporations and the wealthy. Kasich, however, has promised to balance the state budget without raising taxes.

Instead, he’ll look to further budget cuts, combined with the usual Republican prescription for job creation: privatization and hand-outs for business. His “JobsOhio” bill, now moving through the legislature, would privatize the state’s economic development department. Kasich’s business friends would get to manage $1.2 billion of public money in a manner “swaddled in secrecy,” as the Columbus Dispatch observed.

A former Fox News commentator and Lehman Brothers investment banker, Kasich has a reputation for arrogance.

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After a senator introduced the collective bargaining bill, Kasich announced he was working on his own version that would outlaw public employee strikes and prohibit “prevailing wage” rules for government construction contracts.

If the senate bill “doesn’t come out the way I like it,” Kasich warned, he will insert his preferred language into the budget due March 15.

Ironically, the governor’s approach will destroy jobs, argues Mike Bauer, Cleveland regional president of AFSCME Council 8, representing the state’s county and local government employees. “When you attack public workers and reduce their income, it means they’ll have less money to support local merchants,” he said. “And that forces the merchants to lay off more people.”

LABOR NOTCHES UP FIGHT

Last spring a labor-community coalition called One Ohio Now came together to challenge the state’s withering commitment to social services. But after Republicans swept into power in November, labor prepared for more urgent action.

Seth Rosen, vice president of Communications Workers District 4, which covers Ohio and other Midwestern states, said the usual lobbying, legislative analysis, and small rallies “weren’t going to get the job done this time. We need a way bigger movement that connects all the dots and is focused on mass mobilization.”

The state AFL-CIO, AFSCME, SEIU 1199, and the teachers unions stepped forward, raising more than $250,000 and hiring a full-time organizer. Community groups such as the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, Jobs with Justice, NAACP, and the Sierra Club joined as well. They formed a new coalition to organize a series of increasingly large mobilizations.

One sign of the fighting spirit was seen at a February 9 public hearing on the collective bargaining bill in Columbus. An angry crowd of 800 union members, more than half of them firefighters, packed the statehouse.

The coalition’s first mobilization, planned to coincide with the governor’s budget proposal, will focus not in Ohio’s major cities but in 10 or more smaller cities with a strong Republican presence. The aim is to change hearts and minds across the state.

“The new action orientation is badly needed. We need to be in the streets,” said Harriet Applegate, head of the North Shore Labor Council, headquartered in Cleveland. Applegate said the coalition is planning three major mobilizations in six months. “Past that, we’ll need initiatives and referendums” to try to get back whatever Republicans take away, she believes, along with sustained action for years forward.

Beside challenges from the right, labor still faces internal challenges: not all Ohio labor leaders are working together yet. With the immediate attacks focused on the public sector, some private sector unions are thinking they can take a pass.

But Applegate adds, “The good news is that people are scared in a way they have never been scared before. There’s no good choice left but to fight.”