Ohio Governor John Kasich delivered his “State of the State” speech March 8 with all the pomp expected of a new governor setting his agenda.
But 3,000 union members and allies—led by 2,000 firefighters along with teachers, state workers, electrical workers, steelworkers, and many others—had just finished rallying outside the Columbus statehouse damning Senate Bill 5, the governor’s proposal to gut public employee unions.
And now hundreds of protesters packed the hearing gallery, with many more outside, filling the air with boos and “Kill the Bill” chants while the governor spun down-home tales, like one about a young girl who walked up to him during his campaign to say, “Mister, please don’t tax my eggs.”
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Seth Rosen, vice president of Communications Workers District 4, said Ohio politics are usually mild. Booing the governor isn’t typical.
The governor and the legislature’s Republican majority certainly don’t have moderation in mind. After a little reworking, the senate passed a bill in early March that ends collective bargaining for most state workers, by a 17-16 vote. The assembly was still considering it at press time.
At the governor’s request, it outlaws public employee strikes and allows public employers—including cities and school districts—to eliminate, modify, or renegotiate contracts during a fiscal emergency. The state’s $8 billion deficit arguably constitutes an emergency now.
SB 5 allows most state employees—as well as school and local government workers—to bargain wages. But it forbids talks on pensions and health benefits and a score of other topics. Salary step schedules would be replaced with “pay for performance.”
Resistance in the Air
Though in smaller numbers than in Wisconsin, Ohioans have turned out to oppose the Republican attack on unions. Every major city has seen activity, whether pickets, marches, or town hall meetings. Almost 10,000 converged on Columbus March 1.
College students have pulled together a statewide activist network, Defend Education Ohio, driven both by the anti-worker bill and by deep budget cuts that will boost tuition. Marc Auerbach, an Ohio State graduate student, says, “Things are popping up all over the state where people are looking to express their opposition. It’s kind of in the air.”
Public university faculty don’t fare well in SB 5. It reclassifies them as managers and removes their collective bargaining rights.
Sherry Linkon, who teaches American and labor studies at Youngstown State University, said faculty are talking about refusing duties that allegedly make them managerial, such as sitting on hiring committees or helping to fashion department curricular decisions.
For K-12 teachers, SB 5 will limit new teachers to one-year contracts, leaving job security in limbo year after year.
No Revenue, Just Cuts
The attack on union rights is but one plank of Kasich’s program. The other, mirroring national trends, is cutting government services that support working people and buttress the economy. On March 15, the governor unveiled a two-year budget that hits city and county governments particularly hard, with cuts growing to 50 percent. Schools will lose 11.5 percent in 2012 and 5 percent in 2013, after factoring in lost federal stimulus money.
Privatization will further drain public schools: Kasich wants to double vouchers for private schools to 28,000, while removing the state cap on charter schools. He would sell off five prisons and one turnpike. The budget hits higher education with a 10.5 percent cut in 2012. Colleges would be exempt from paying the prevailing wage on construction projects.
All public employees will take an effective 2 percent pay cut by increasing their required pension contributions.
The governor argues that these cuts are the only way to address Ohio’s deficit, and he refuses to consider any revenue raisers since “we can’t tax our way to prosperity.”
Zach Schiller, research director for Policy Matters Ohio, says much of the state’s deficit is “self-inflicted”—the result of a 2005 tax overhaul that costs Ohio $2 billion a year. The state tax on corporate profits was eliminated, while individual income taxes were slashed to heavily benefit upper-income Ohioans.
The state has lost 400,000 jobs in the last four years, but the governor is moving to further decimate services and is unwilling to revisit the 2005 tax changes that are starving the public coffers.
SB 5 is not popular. Voters in a March 15 poll disapproved of the law, with 54 percent against and only 31 percent in favor. Kasich’s approval rating plummeted to 35 percent.
‘People’s Veto’ Option
Ohio activists are talking about a ballot option to turn the bill back. If SB 5 opponents can gather 231,000 signatures by June, the measure will be suspended and put before voters as a referendum in November.
Carolyn Park, a paraprofessional in the Cincinnati Public Schools and an AFSCME steward, says the legislative fight has her union pumped up like never before. Park attended a “train the trainer” session in Columbus, and then led a session for members back home to prepare them to canvass and phonebank union households about the referendum.
But maintaining bargaining rights would leave still unaddressed Ohio’s fiscal deficit and Kasich’s social cuts.
Labor leaders are just beginning to have conversations about how to raise the state’s revenues, said Harriet Applegate, head of the Cleveland-based North Shore Labor Council. Ideas include clawing back some of the wealth transferred to Ohio’s corporate community and taxing the rich by voter referendum.
But Applegate warns that progressive measures “usually get trounced” by business interests, which spend heavily.
Broadening the Base
Labor and community activists are thinking beyond the ballot box, too. The same day Kasich announced his budget, a new labor-community coalition called Stand Up for Ohio held protests in 13 suburban and rural locales across the state. Besides the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees, the coalition includes the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, the NAACP, Jobs with Justice, and Defend Education Ohio.
The actions tied statewide union and budget issues to local concerns. In Salem, a rural town in northeastern Ohio hard hit by deindustrialization, community groups have been organizing around access to healthy food. People in much of rural Ohio lack a close-by store that carries healthy groceries, as well as affordable transportation that can get them there, explains Kirk Noden of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative in Youngstown.
Fighting poverty in rural Ohio requires state funding to support projects and build regional public transportation systems. Noden points to a $120 million public-private partnership in Pennsylvania to promote supermarkets (and jobs) in underserved communities.
Salem’s March 15 action brought together community and faith activists to protest SB 5 but also to engage residents in wider discussions and ask them to sign cards pledging to take future actions.
“Stand Up” is planning a statewide mobilization in Columbus on May 5.