The massive defeat of Issue 2 in the Ohio elections Nov. 8 repealed the measure, known as Senate Bill 5, and stopped the attempt by Gov. John Kasich and his extremist allies to bust public employee unions and break the political power of organized labor. The magnitude of the defeat - 61-39% -- and the unprecedented unity and breadth of the labor-led coalition that brought it about should have lasting effects on the politics of this key battleground state. The election also sent shock waves across the country, spurred the effort to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and may mark an important turning point in the national struggle to defeat the ultra-right, especially with the 2012 presidential elections fast-approaching.
There are important lessons to be drawn from the protracted 10-month grassroots campaign to repeal SB 5.
The first is that right-wing extremism is a clear and present danger to the democratic rights and economic security of the American people. Kasich was narrowly elected in 2010 by a margin of 49-47% falsely claiming that his opponent, incumbent Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland, was responsible for the 400,000 jobs Ohio lost in the national recession. Many normally Democratic voters, angry, frustrated and discouraged at the continuing lack of jobs, stayed home thinking that it really didn't matter who won.
But they learned in short order how wrong they were. Far from adopting measures against unemployment, Kasich rejected federal funds for a rail system that would have created 10,000 jobs and the Republican-controlled legislature pushed through a far-reaching program to destroy unions, curtail voting rights, attack reproductive freedom, slash funds for local government and public schools, allow privatization of valuable state assets, permit guns in bars and open wide the doors to destructive environmental practices, especially fracking. Layoffs of public employees have continued without interruption and are expected to reach 50,000 because of the state budget cuts.
Much of Kasich's program was rationalized with claims of a budget deficit, but at the same time the Republicans cut revenues by ending the inheritance tax for millionaires, doubled funding for private and charter schools and left standing huge tax cuts and loopholes for big business and the rich. Without these measures the state would have had a large budget surplus.
The centerpiece of all this was the draconian SB 5, stripping the right of collective bargaining from 360,000 public employees, outlawing their right to strike, ending binding arbitration of contract disputes and facilitating decertification of unions. As in Wisconsin and other states, the template for the bill was provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the public policy arm of the right-wing oil billionaires, Charles and David Koch. After the bill passed the Senate by one vote with six Republicans joining the 10 Democrats in opposition, even more extreme provisions, pushed by Americans for Prosperity, another Koch brothers outfit, were added to the final version.
Kasich said Ohioans must either "get on my bus or we will run you over." He publicly denounced a cop, who dared to pull him over for a traffic violation as "an idiot," and promised supporters he would "break the back of organized labor in the schools."
Packaged with such arrogant rhetoric, SB 5 ignited a mass reaction unprecedented in size and scope in Ohio history. For two months in the dead of winter tens of thousands surrounded and filled the State House chanting "Kill the Bill" while rallies, town hall meetings and marches were held throughout the state as the measure made its way through hearings. Kasich and Americans for Prosperity at first attempted to mobilize their much-vaunted Tea Party shock troops in counter demonstrations but, when only a few hundred showed up, they abandoned the field and, except for sporadic town hall meetings with local Republican groups, the Tea Baggers were hardly seen again.
Out of the mass actions in February and March was born the coalition to repeal the bill through a referendum. We Are Ohio, a campaign structure led by key public employee and a few other unions and allied with the state AFL-CIO, was set up to coordinate the effort.
Its first decisive success was to mobilize some 10,000 volunteers who collected a record 1.3 million signatures in nine weeks to place repeal SB 5 on the ballot. This was five times the minimum statewide total required. A minimum number required for 44 counties was more than doubled in all 88 counties. This broad base of support reflected the fact that throughout the state, even in the most rural Republican strongholds, firefighters, teachers and other targeted public employees had risen to fight.
Kasich attempted to counter the referendum with the Tea Party, who collected signatures and placed a bogus "repeal Obamacare" measure, which became Issue 3, on the ballot. This was supposed to mobilize the right wing base, although state nullification of federal law has questionable legal standing. No campaign was conducted and most voters had no idea what the issue was about, but the measure, vaguely worded as a "health care choice" proposal passed and National Republican Chairman Reince Priebus lamely tried to discount the massive defeat of Issue 2 as simply a "state matter," and claim that passage of Issue 3 was a nationally significant repudiation of President Obama.
While public employees were the direct targets of SB 5 and at the core of the fightback, the coalition embraced the entire labor movement. Teamsters, steelworkers, auto workers, coal miners and building trades workers saw SB 5 as the opening gun in a more far-reaching attempt to pass a "Right to Work" law and bust all organized labor. The coalition included the predominantly Republican safety forces and Ohio Education Association teachers who were not generally connected to AFL-CIO labor councils. The safety forces formed their own group, Protecting Ohio's Protectors, which was critical in building opposition to Issue 2 in the Republican base as well as forcing the Republican Secretary of State to accept ballot language sought by We Are Ohio.
Aside from labor, the coalition included two other major components - a broad group of community allies, especially the African-American community, and the Democratic Party.
Community groups included the Stand Up For Ohio coalition of labor, environmental and other groups that had previously organized around the theme of "Good Jobs and Strong Communities." In addition, churches, seniors, groups opposed to budget cuts, MoveOn and eventually the Occupy Wall St. movement became involved, motivated partly by moral outrage at the brazen attack on a fundamental democratic right, but many, including small businesses and farmers, tenants and homeless groups also saw the attack on living standards, consumer buying power and reduced public services as a threat to their economic well-being.
A major effort to reach African-American voters was conducted by the Ohio Unity Coalition, headed by Petee Talley, Secretary-Treasurer of the State AFL-CIO. The coalition included the NAACP Voter Fund, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, Black churches and community groups and fielded an army of volunteers and paid staff to canvass the community door-to-door. They drew on the widely-held understanding of the key role government employment, with its enforcement of anti-discrimination measures, had played in providing African-Americans with decent wages and benefits as well as guaranteeing badly needed public services. In addition, Fight for a Fair Economy, a coalition set up by the Service Employees, had several hundred staff and volunteers working in Black communities throughout the state.
The Black community and the Obama For America campaign were especially concerned about the voter suppression law enacted by the Kasich forces aimed at reducing turnout of minorities, seniors and low-income people.
In an important show of unity We Are Ohio joined the effort to repeal this law and helped collect 380,000 signatures in August and September to place it before voters on the 2012 ballot thus blocking it from affecting the presidential election.
SB 5 was not just an attempt to end union rights in public employment but was also a power grab aimed at breaking opposition to the whole right wing extremist agenda and busting unions that provide funds, volunteers and other resources primarily to Democratic candidates.
The Democrats recognized the importance of We Are Ohio being non-partisan so as to maintain its ability to reach Republican voters and agreed to keep a low profile and work simply as a member of the coalition. Thus, Obama stayed away from Ohio, but Vice President Joe Biden rallied the repeal effort at the state Democratic Party dinner and at a large Labor Day rally in Cincinnati. He joined AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka in a national conference call declaring that labor was the key force to keep "the barbarians from the gate."
Former Gov. Strickland was also active especially in the Statehouse rallies and the iconic former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn made a TV commercial for the repeal campaign. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and all five Democratic Congresspersons spoke at Labor Day events and get out the vote rallies. Rep. Dennis Kucinich put out his own yard sign. The Democratic state legislators were extremely active in all phases of the ten-month effort as were many local Democratic officials. The Obama campaign assigned staff and mobilized volunteers to work with We Are Ohio as did the state and county Democratic Party organizations and many college Democrat groups.
The labor-led coalition was not a well-oiled machine but rather a loosely coordinated popular uprising. Many unions and other groups focused on mobilizing their own members and conducting their own operations - phone banks, canvassing, mailings, literature distributions. Some unions made extraordinary efforts. The Cleveland Teachers Union was able to involve nearly one-third of its members in all phases of the fight and ran a continual phone bank out of its offices reaching over 540,000 voters.
Working America with offices in four cities knocked on nearly 400,000 doors. Senior Voice and the Cleveland Tenants Organization sent speakers to educate and mobilize thousands of voters in senior and low-income apartment buildings.
With so many simultaneous operations going, there were inevitable disputes, tactical differences and logistical conflicts. But the differences were minor irritants that were lost in the overwhelming mass upsurge. Building a Better Ohio, Kasich's group to promote Issue 2, was never able to mobilize a mass base and never recovered from the petition drive. The petitions, collected from every nook and cranny of the state, filled a semi-trailer that led a parade of 6000 through downtown Columbus June 30. As they were unloaded, the Secretary of State had to call in a structural engineer to guarantee his office floor could hold the load.
After that show of force, splits grew in state and national Republican ranks and, Kasich was not able to raise the funds and mobilize resources to counter the breadth and depth of the continually growing repeal movement. While details of right-wing funding remain hidden, it appears that corporate forces were reluctant to invest in a losing project and Building a Better Ohio was greatly outspent by the opponents of SB 5. Angry with the limited enthusiasm from his own party, Kasich boycotted the state Republican dinner in July.
He did have the support of all the corporate newspapers with the exception of dailies in Toledo and Akron and Issue 2 was also endorsed by state and local Chambers of Commerce and the associations of manufacturers, contractors and corporate farmers.
The national right-wing apparatus got into the act but could hardly make up for the lack of a local grassroots movement. Sarah Palin made a robocall, Liz Cheney operated a phone bank from Virginia, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck railed that the repeal effort was socialist and pious Christian fundamentalist Mike Huckabee came to a meeting of Kasich forces urging that "creative" actions be taken to prevent opponents from voting including "letting the air of their tires and telling them the election was on a different day." In fact, a mysterious group actually did make robocalls to SB 5 opponents telling them the election had been postponed to Nov. 9.
These actions reflected the isolation and fraudulent nature of Kasich's campaign. His hope to confuse and mislead voters backfired with the notorious "Grannygate" scandal. Building a Better Ohio lifted footage from a We Are Ohio TV ad featuring 78-year-old Marlene Quinn who called for defeat of Issue 2 since her great grand-daughter was saved in a house fire and she recognized the need for firefighters to be able to negotiate for safety equipment. Building a Better Ohio used the footage in its own ad with a voice over of a woman urging passage of Issue 2. We Are Ohio fought back with a new ad where Quinn forcefully denounced the desperation and deceitfulness of the Issue 2 supporters. The incident greatly undermined Kasich's support especially as he publicly defended the fraud saying it was "fine" with him.
The desire of many Republicans to distance themselves from Kasich also emerged in the bizarre visit of GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney to a pro-Issue 2 phone bank in Cincinnati a few days before the election. After the visit Romney told the media he had no position on the issue and that it was up to Ohio voters. Although he later recanted, insisting he really supported Issue 2, Kasich's backers demanded the resignation of Kevin DeWine, state Republican chairman, who, they said had engineered the incident to embarrass the governor.
The defeat of Issue 2 was a huge setback for the GOP extremists who believed they could use their narrow victory in 2010 to ride herd over all opposition, including in their own party. Although Issue 2 was the only thing to attract significant numbers of voters, the 46% turnout was the highest in 20 years in any off-year election, higher than in the 2010 gubernatorial election and far exceeded the 31% turnout in the comparable 2007 off-year election. More voted No on Issue 2 than voted for Kasich in 2010. It passed in only six counties and failed in 55 counties Kasich won in 2010.
Kasich was clearly shaken by the outcome and said he would have to reassess his agenda, a stance denounced by Rush Limbaugh and the extremists who insisted he push ahead as if nothing had changed. The Tea Party immediately announced it would start a referendum campaign for a "Right to Work" law and Kevin O'Brien, the extremist assistant editor of the Plain Dealer and enemy of public education, urged Republicans to immediately reintroduce SB 5, only this time leaving out the safety forces and focusing entirely on teachers.
But the Plain Dealer editorial board, which had endorsed Kasich for Governor and backed Issue 2, now conceded SB 5 was, in fact, "union busting" and lacked the support of all reasonable people. It urged the "Right to Work" effort be dropped, noted that Kasich's approval rating had fallen to 38% and ran a puff piece Dec. 4 on the multi-millionaire Governor, previously a director of the bankrupt Lehman Brothers Wall St. bank, allowing him to reference his working class background and claim he was misunderstood.
The Republican leadership in the Legislature said it would hold off revisiting labor issues until the new year and some warned that a sleeping giant had been awakened and continued attacks on union rights could well guarantee an Obama victory in Ohio.
The election also set back the Republicans in the Cincinnati City Council where all four pro-Issue 2 Councilmen lost and for the first time the Council gained an African-American majority. The Democrats certainly have grounds for celebration, but it remains to be seen if they can consolidate a base in traditionally Republican areas. They also face a serious challenge in recovering from the losses sustained in 2010 in the State Legislature and Congress because that election gave Republicans control of the redistricting mandated every ten years after the Census. While the state is closely divided, new districts were drawn to give 12 of the 16 Congressional seats to Republicans and similar hurdles were thrown up in state districts.
The Democrats are trying to overturn the redistricting through a referendum and in the courts but it is not clear they will succeed.
Serious challenges remain but the struggle to repeal SB 5 has greatly raised working class unity and consciousness. The main lesson is clear. With a broad, labor-led democratic coalition, right wing extremism, the greatest enemy of the American people, can be defeated.