The most important thing about the victory of labor unions and progressive organizations in Ohio on Nov. 8 is that it shows that democracy still rules in the United States when the people get their act together.
When the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court in January 2010 overturned more than a century of court precedent with the Citizens United decision that allowed corporations to get involved in political campaigns, many progressives despaired that democracy could survive the flood of corporate cash.
The 2010 general election boosted that pessimism as right-wing groups collected hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it unaccountable, to pay for political ads that attacked Democrats in general and President Obama in particular. Conservative groups outspent liberal groups by more than 2 to 1 and the corporate cash helped Republicans nationalize the election as a referendum on Obama’s first two years in office.
The electorate, confused by the barrage of ads distorting health care reform and the reasons for the high unemployment rate, last year gave the GOP a majority in the US House of Representatives, reduced the Democratic majority in the Senate and swept Republicans into control in nine states, including Alabama for the first time since Reconstruction, as well as Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin. Republicans also reinforced their control in Florida and Texas and got a veto-proof majority over the Democratic governor in North Carolina. There was some cause for panic that the corporate-fueled GOP could administer the coup de grâce in 2012.
But the congressional opposition — restyled the “Republican’ts” as they made it clear they would block any efforts to revive the economy on President Obama’s watch — failed to do anything substantial to promote jobs. Instead, the Republican’ts forced budget cuts that stopped federal aid to cash-strapped state and local governments that had kept hundreds of thousands of public workers on the payroll through 2010. They also blocked the passage of Obama’s proposal to rebuild roads, bridges and other public works.
At the state level, new Republican governors in Florida, New Jersey, Ohio and Wisconsin rejected federal assistance for rail projects that would have brought thousands of jobs to their states as they generally pushed an anti-worker agenda, but it was the attack on organized labor in Ohio and Wisconsin, following a script laid out by the infamous billionaire Koch Brothers and the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, that sparked the “Popeye Moment” in Madison last February.
When new Republican Gov. Scott Walker called for eliminating almost all collective bargaining rights and slashing pay and benefits for state workers, refusing to negotiate with unions representing state employees or the Democratic senators, the Dems fled the state to deny the state Senate a quorum while 30,000 students and public-sector workers rallied at the Statehouse to protest the power grab.
After several weeks of impasse, the Republican majority in Madison changed the rules to allow the Senate to pass the union-busting law anyway; then it passed a budget that cut $800 million from public schools and trimmed tax credits for the poor while cutting investment and corporate taxes and passed a voter ID bill that makes it harder for some seniors, students and low-income workers to vote. Wisconsin voters initiated recalls against six of the Republican senators who supported the power grab, and replaced two of them with Democrats. The Dems fell one short of retaking the Senate majority, but they learned things that will help them as they target Walker. Democrats started a recall petition against Walker on Nov. 15 and they have 60 days to collect 541,000 signatures to force the election next spring.
Although Republicans hoped to pit the industrial unions against the public-sector unions, the AFL-CIO labor federation and their progressive allies were not confused and flooded the field with workers who collected nearly 1.3 million signatures (a comfortable cushion over the 231,000 they needed). Ohio showed that a good ground game can still foil an air attack, as 61% of voters rejected a Republican law to outlaw collective bargaining.
Ohio Democrats also expect to have the signatures to challenge a voter suppression bill that shortens the early voting period, bans early voting on Sundays and prohibits absentee ballot requests by mail. That would suspend the law until it is decided in the 2012 general election.
Ohio Republicans took some solace in voters’ approval of a largely symbolic referendum opposing the federal health care reform act’s mandate to buy insurance. That reflects a decision in Ohio not to confuse voters with two issues, but Obama and the Democrats ought to start promoting the benefits of the Affordable Care Act for working people and small businesses.
Progressives also won in Maine, where voters rejected a Republican bill to stop same-day voter registration that allowed citizens to register and vote on election day; Kentucky re-elected Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear by a 21-point margin; Iowa Republican failed to win control of the state Senate in a special election that they tried to swing on the issue of gay marriage, Democrats expanded their control of the New Jersey Senate, Arizona voters recalled the immigrant-bashing state Sen. Russell Pearce. Mississippi voters rejected an attempt to confer personhood on embryos from the moment of conception, a move so extreme that even Catholic bishops distanced themselves from it.
The victories on Nov. 8 do not mean that the damage done by the Citizens United ruling should be discounted, nor should it be allowed to stand. Progressives should continue to demand a constitutional amendment to establish that money is not speech; that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights; that human persons are guaranteed the right to vote and have that vote count; and that local communities, their economies and democracies should be protected against illegitimate “pre-emption” actions by global, national and state governments. Also, corporations should be accountable to the public. (See movetoamend.org.)
But progressives should take heart. They still face an uphill fight against Organized Money, both in Democratic primaries and in the general election, but progressives simply have to work harder and get their neighbors to vote smarter.
We shouldn’t be surprised that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who made his fortune reporting on the financial industry, would side with the financiers against the rabble rousers of Occupy Wall Street.
But that doesn’t give Bloomberg the right to send in the cops to clear out the protesters at Zuccotti Park. The First Amendment says that the people have a right to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government (and, by extension, the Lords of Finance) for the redress of grievances. There is no time limit on that assembly and local governments have no authority to “opt out” of their constitutional requirements.
It is important for the Occupy movement to remain peaceful and to resist provocations from both police and anarchists as the Occupiers continue to raise questions about Wall Street’s role in tanking the economy and refusing to take responsibility. This is the Occupy movement’s Valley Forge and they need popular support to keep the protests going through the winter.
Right now a majority of people agree with the Occupy movement and see themselves among the 99 Percent. If OWS wants to declare victory and go indoors for the winter, that’s fine. Or if they want to keep reoccupying the parks they get chucked out of, good on them. But anybody who throws a brick at a cop or through a shop window gives the police an excuse to overreact, guarantees headlines about violent extremists and gives up the moral high ground that the Occupy movement has earned. As winter sets in, keep the heat on but keep the peace.