After fierce but inconclusive battles in Wisconsin, the great labor struggle of 2011 is now centered in that ultimate swing state of Ohio. A richly funded national right-wing effort to break the economic and political power of the labor movement in its Midwestern heartland is now facing a ballot test in a Nov. 8 referendum to affirm or overturn a union-busting law, known as Senate Bill 5.
As in Wisconsin and other states, conservatives in Ohio have focused their fire on public-sector unions, which are easy to identify with unpopular levels of government spending and taxation. But just as there is little doubt the assault on public-sector unions this year is part of a broader effort to weaken collective bargaining rights and undermine labor’s political strength, efforts to repeal Senate Bill 5 will depend on the solidarity of private-sector union members who are not directly affected by the legislation, but can see the handwriting on the wall.
The heart of Senate Bill 5, as enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. John Kasich, is a set of provisions limiting collective bargaining by public employees to wage and hour issues. Strikes by public employees (who constitute nearly half the state’s unionized workforce) would be banned, as they already are for police and fire department employees. Pensions and benefits, and a variety of ancillary issues affecting conditions of employment, such as class sizes for teachers, would be permanently off the table.
Of equal importance is a provision banning “fair-share” assessments from non-union members who benefit from union collective bargaining efforts, a step that would seriously damage incentives to join public-sector unions. This is perhaps the most obvious feature of Senate Bill 5 that might set a precedent for future attacks on private sector unions in Ohio and on unions in other states. Nationally, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is pushing state right-to-work laws banning “union shops.” Some, including, so far, at least two Republican presidential candidates, are even promoting a national right-to-work law.
Proponents of SB 5 are trying mightily to claim the legislation is mainly about “runaway” pensions and benefits, and often tout a provision requiring public employees to pay at least 10 percent of the cost of pensions and 15 percent of the cost of healthcare premiums. Unfortunately for this argument, many if not most public employees already contribute to pensions and benefits at this level or more. Just as important, public employee unions in Ohio and elsewhere have traditionally sacrificed wage increases to pension and benefit needs. Indeed, in 2008 alone, Ohio public-sector unions made $250 million in wage and benefit concessions to state and local governments.
The conservative talk about disparities between public and private-sector employees is a transparent ploy to drive a wedge between the two wings of the labor movement, while distracting attention from the more egregiously anti-union provisions of the SB 5. Polling has shown the benefit and pension issues are the only provisions of SB 5 that are reasonably popular.
These efforts certainly have not worked at the level of union or political-party leadership. The drive to repeal SB 5, spearheaded by a union-funded umbrella group called We Are Ohio, has conspicuously featured private-sector union leaders. This weekend, a Columbus-area phone-bank and door-to-door canvassing effort was personally led by Communications Workers of America president Larry Cohen, with strong participation from other private-sector unions ranging from the Steelworkers to the Plumbers & Pipefitters to the Food and Commercial Workers.
Mike Gillis of the Ohio AFL-CIO told me that building trades unions, who fear an effort to kill Project Labor Agreements ensuring union jobs for major public works projects, are also very active in the repeal campaign. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed Kasich’s approval ratings among voters in union households to be deeply “underwater” with 27 percent positive and 68 percent negative. And beyond the union ranks, the Ohio Democratic Party has been an unambiguous opponent of SB 5 from the beginning.
The apparent strategy of conservative anti-union activists to target public-sector employees as a less-popular “weak link” in the union ranks is based on questionable assumptions. Though there is little in the way of public polling on this subject, a February 2011 Pew survey showed public- and private-sector unions having almost identical favorable/unfavorable ratings from the public at large. The poll found 48 percent have favorable view of private-sector unions with 37 percent negative. For public section unions, the figures were 48 percent favorable, 40 percent unfavorable.
These sentiments, along with a broad perception that Kasich and Republican legislators had overreached with SB 5, generated strong initial support for the effort to repeal the legislation. Indeed, Kasich and Republican legislators made a brief and unsuccessful bid to head off the referendum by suggesting negotiations to modify the legislation. A July Quinnipiac survey showed repeal favored by a robust 56-32 margin, a figure made more formidable by the tendency of ambivalent voters to cast “no” votes on ballot measures. (Although opponents of SB 5 placed the measure on the ballot via voter petitions, a “yes” vote, under an Ohio practice designed to avoid confusion, would sustain the law while a “no” vote would repeal it.)
After a period of extensive partisan polarization on SB 5 and publicity over similar battles in other Midwestern states, along with the first big series of pro-SB 5 ads, the margin of support for repeal had dropped to 51-38. Since this is an off-year election in Ohio, turnout patterns could be as important as public opinion in determining the result. The ultimate outcome, then, may still depend on stretch-drive campaigns by both sides. The repeal-SB-5 forces are relying heavily on the kind of grass-roots effort that collected an impressive 1.3 million signatures — a new record for Ohio — on petitions to put the measure on the ballot. We Are Ohio is testing out its ground game in early voting, which began on Oct. 4.
The pro-SB-5 forces, organized under the leadership of a group calling itself Building a Better Ohio, have little in the way of a ground game, other than local Republican organizations and Tea Party groups. The Koch brothers’ favorite project, Americans for Prosperity, has been training Tea Partyers in mobilization efforts for the referendum. But supporters of SB-5 do have money, most of it from the same shadowy national conservative groups who have exploited the loose campaign finance rules introduced by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to spend vast sums on the 2010 midterm elections and the battles in Wisconsin and other states since then. And while the pro-repeal We Are Ohio campaign has fully disclosed its funding sources and expenditures, the finances of the anti-repeal campaign remain largely a matter of conjecture.
Clearly both sides have devoted significant resources to the airwaves. Just last week, a consortium of Ohio newspapers released a partial analysis of TV ad spending that suggested We Are Ohio has outspent Building a Better Ohio by a 5-2 margin. According to the same news story, We Are Ohio’s own figures indicate a closer money battle, with the pro-repeal group registering $5.4 million in ad buys compared to $2.8 million for Building a Better Ohio, supplemented by another $1.2 million in ads bought by Make Ohio Great, a group set up by the Republican Governors’ Association and featuring more general “reform” appeals by Kasich.
But pro-repeal forces legitimately fear a last-minute infusion of out-of-state money supporting a “yes” vote, with Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS — which played a major role in the 2010 elections — being a particular suspect, especially given the strong incentive it has under federal tax laws governing nonprofits to spend as much as possible on non-candidate elections like ballot initiatives.
Indeed, for all their efforts to frame the Ohio referendum as a struggle between budget-conscious Buckeye officials against union bosses, it’s clear that the Nov. 8 balloting, no matter which way it goes, will be a major landmark in a national anti-union effort that began in Wisconsin and will reach its apex in November of 2012. A political spokesperson for the national AFL-CIO, Jeff Hauser, put it this way in an interview:
It is critical that working people respond vigorously to this significant attack on their rights orchestrated by the shadowy ALEC and backed by Karl Rove's secret sources of corporate cash. Fortunately, Kasich, like Scott Walker before him, has galvanized working people into action, union and non-union, private sector and public sector alike.
That’s how opponents of SB 5 hope the issue will be understood by 50 percent-plus-one of Ohioans voting on Nov. 8.