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How Progressives Won the Labor Rights Showdown in Ohio

Thousands gather to say "Kill The Bill" to Senate Bill 5 on March 8 in Columbus, OH. (Photo: Ohio AFL-CIO)

How Progressives Won the Labor Rights Showdown in Ohio

Thousands gather to say "Kill The Bill" to Senate Bill 5 on March 8 in Columbus, OH. (Photo: Ohio AFL-CIO)

Part of the Series

Last week, the labor movement and its allies scored a major victory with the repeal of Ohio Senate Bill 5 (SB5), a piece of anti-union legislation signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich. In a referendum that gave voters a chance to speak on the issue, Ohioans resoundingly rejected the law, which would have gutted the bargaining rights of 350,000 public-sector workers. In a landmark defeat for Republicans, voters turned out in large numbers and voted 61 percent to 39 percent to strike down SB5.

To understand how progressives pulled off this remarkable win, I spoke with Paul Booth, one of the chief strategists behind the campaign to repeal SB5. Currently, Booth is executive assistant to Gerald McEntee, the longtime president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). But he is also an organizing legend outside of the labor movement. In the 1960s, Booth served as national secretary and vice president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and in the 1970s he was a prominent figure at the Midwest Academy, an influential training ground for organizers. He has worked for AFSCME since 1974.

Delving into the Ohio victory, I opened with a simple question: “Why did we win?”

“The people of Ohio decided that this was as a power grab by the governor and his people,” Booth said. “They decided public service workers' rights were worth preserving.”

His answer seemed consistent with the common “overreach” analysis. Many commentators argue the Ohio vote is symptomatic of a widespread backlash against Republican governors who exceeded their electoral mandates by ramming conservative agendas through statehouses.

“I'm cautious about 'overreach,'” Booth countered. “We stuck Kasich and his people with that characterization, but as a factual matter overreach is the wrong word. Because what they did was right out of their game plan. They had electoral success in November 2010. And, in order to thwart everything that we stand for, they wanted to cash that in as quickly and thoroughly as possible. They wanted to change the rules of the game for 2012. They view next year's elections as their last best hope for throwing Obama out, taking back the Senate, and finalizing everything they've worked for in the last forty years. So this was reach, not overreach. They did exactly what they thought they had to do. In the context of everything they've been trying to do for the last forty years, it is essential for them to cripple the voice of working people.”

An Unprecedented Scale

I asked Booth about the nature of the field campaign that labor and other progressives waged on the ground in Ohio.

“It was an immense outpouring of energy and work,” he said. “The gathering of 300,000 signatures was almost entirely a volunteer effort. That's never been done before for anything, anywhere. Tens of thousands of people burnt up shoe leather going door to door. The GOP put out a last-minute fundraising appeal where they said with great pride that their people had knocked on 100,000 doors. Our organization had done 200,000 door knocks in a single day: Saturday, November 5.”

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“Most petition drives, including those launched by organized labor, are done by paid signature gatherers,” Booth continued. “In this case, we mobilized a volunteer army for a citizens' veto petition drive. Nobody has ever done anything this big.”

What about the role of Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, in this drive? The organization is designed to engage working-class people who are not already represented by unions. In this case, Booth believes they were essential in expanding labor's reach.

“In Ohio, Working America reaches a million members not included in actual labor unions,” he said. “That's more than the membership of all the Ohio unions combined. It was an indispensable piece of the picture. We cannot afford to enter into any of these fights without all of our tools available. We have to use them all, and even when we use them all we aren't guaranteed a victory. We are up against a very formidable array of opposition power.”

Going on the Offensive

Booth and I next discussed why the Ohio movement had been more successful in rejecting the Republicans' anti-union initiatives than its Wisconsin counterpart.

“In Wisconsin the only means available to us [for opposing Gov. Scott Walker] were partisan elections,” Booth said. “In recall elections, you have to overcome the bias against recalling sitting officials. And because of the constitutional framework in Wisconsin, we could only run recalls in districts that had been won by the Republicans in 2008, not the swing districts they seized in 2010. So it was a heavier lift. In Wisconsin, a very high percentage of the people who voted for Walker voted against the recall of their state senators.”

Ohio, Booth noted, presented a different situation: “Doing a ballot measure is a non-partisan exercise. So 30 percent of the people who voted for Kasich in 2010 voted 'no' on the referendum. While we split the independent voters in the Wisconsin recall elections, we got a solid majority of them against Senate Bill 5 [in Ohio].”

Concluding our conversation, I expressed concern that, in spite of the latest victory, Republicans have forced us into wars of attrition, and wondered how we could go on the offensive.

“They are making us spend our money,” Booth answered, “but you just have to do what you have to do. We have to dig deeper. Ultimately we are a popular movement. The loyalty of our members is rock solid. I don't think they can wipe us out with these means, but it certainly puts a lot of stress on us, and you never know what is going to happen.”

“We understand that these are battles in the war, not the war itself,” Booth said. “There will be more battles when the legislature reconvenes and during the elections next year.”

His prescription for going forward was clear: “Unity. Discipline in both organization and message. Boldness. We have to make sure not to get scared, but to get back and fight, fight, fight.”

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