In Ohio, Labor Rallies for Referendum Against Anti-Union Bill

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COLUMBUS -- For any one fired up by the hot pro-union action happening in Wisconsin -- where giant protests led by tractor trailers and shouts for class warfare evolved into a very credible recall threat against a group of GOP state senators -- I recommend a side trip to Ohio as a cool-down exercise.

Ohio, where the political climate is far chillier and more conservative, may prove itself to be the central theater for the showdown between Republicans and labor later this fall. Indeed, what happens in Ohio in the coming months could have far reaching effects and even impact the presidential contest of 2012.

Yesterday, Ohio Gov. John Kasich -- who after just two months in office already had a 28-year record low 40 percent job approval rating -- unveiled his budget plan, which includes slashing public school budgets and selling several state prisons to the private sector. Meanwhile, a coalition of labor unions, community groups, and small student associations held a "Day of Actions" in protest of Senate Bill 5, with activities such as a teachers' rally, picketing on Columbus's Capitol Hill and phonebanking.

The bill, which is backed Kasich and currently making its way through the Ohio House of Representatives, would severely limit collective bargaining power by public-sector employees, including police, firefighters and teachers. Unions would not be able to bargain on pension or health-care plans, yearly step increases would be thrown out in favor of merit raises, and if there were disagreements over contract negotiations, the bill bans strikes, and adds fines for walkouts.

Labor groups and Democrats anticipate the bill's passage through the Republican dominated House -- it passed the Ohio Senate on March 5 -- but plan to fight back by working to put the legislation directly before voters in a special ballot election this fall. Ohio, unlike Wisconsin, lacks a mechanism for recalling elected officials, but it does have a direct means for overturning unpopular legislation: If labor and Democrats are able to secure 200,300 signatures in the coming months, a ballot proposition to vote on overturning Senate Bill 5 will appear before voters come November.

That means Ohio pro-union forces won't need to rely on labor-friendly Democrats to get elected in a special election in order to overturn anti-union legislation -- their plan in Wisconsin, where they are seeking to recall eight GOP senators, elect Democrats in their stead, then repeal the just-passed law stripping public sector unions of most collective bargaining rights in the state. Instead, Ohio union supporters can take on the offending legislation directly themselves.

That's made Ohio Democrats optimistic about their future. "The Republicans have given us a gift," said Seth Bringman, communications director for the Ohio Democratic Party. "They are galvanizing our base with their attacks on working people." There are a lot of rank and file union members who Republicans, one Ohio labor leader told me, who, "if we are able to mount the right campaign, we can get them to break ranks on this issue."

Democrats hope that a voter referendum on Senate Bill 5 will not only bring some Republicans over to their side but also create momentum for Democrats in the state that will carry over to the 2012 general election and help keep Ohio blue for Obama. He beat Arizona Sen. John McCain in the state in 2008, 51 to 47 percent.

One thing's for sure: It will be a hard-fought battle. Should the legislation be subjected to a referendum, labor and Democrats will face well-financed opposition by Republican and business interests, likely led by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. And while both Democrats and Republicans hope to benefit from that contest, no group has more to lose in this fight than organized labor. If Republicans triumph and Senate Bill 5 is signed into law and then remains in effect, labor will be severely crippled and may never regain its footing in the Buckeye State, or even nationally.

Already, the more than half the nation's 14.7 million union members reside in just six states: California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania -- and Ohio. That means the Ohio battle could successfully take out one of the last remaining geographic redoubts of union strength.

Public employee unions are now facing attack in two of the top six union stronghold states -- New Jersey and Ohio -- as well as in less-unionized Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. They also are the lifeblood of today's labor movement.

Public employee unions set the wage and benefit standards in their respective industries. Not only would the passage of anti-collective bargaining legislation in Ohio hobble labor's ability to effectively negotiate contracts for their existing members, it will also make the fight to organize nonunion workers all the more brutal. Pointing to the disparity of wages and benefits between unionized public employees and every one else is one of the few advantages unions have when attempting to organize non-union workers. If unions are unable to collectively bargain over these issues, they also will lose their appeal to current union members. Why pay dues to a union that can't bargain with the boss?

What remains to be seen in Ohio, Wisconsin, and throughout the Midwest where unions are facing similar battles is if we are witnessing the labor movement's revival -- or its last gasp.

Image credit: Matt Sullivan / Reuters

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Natasha Vargas-Cooper is the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America. She lives in Woodland Hills, California.

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