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11.06.11

Labor's New War Chest

Off-year elections usually don’t attract much fervor, but Ohio labor unions have raised $30 million to defeat an anti-union measure on Tuesday’s ballot. The effort has reinvigorated the labor movement nationwide, reports Linda Killian.

The off-year elections usually don’t attract much voter fervor, but don’t tell that to labor unions in Ohio. They have amassed more than $30 million to fight for a ballot measure next Tuesday that would repeal restrictions on collective-bargaining rights for public employees.

The effort, dubbed “We Are Ohio,” has given the labor movement in the state and nationally a shot in the arm after the prolonged economic downturn thinned union rolls and last year’s election propelled many pro-business Republicans into power.

“It has revitalized organized labor, which was frankly demoralized in 2010,” says political scientist John Green, the director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “This is an issue that strikes at the core of their issues and values. There really is labor solidarity in Ohio right now.”

At issue is a law known as Senate Bill 5, championed by Republican Gov. John Kasich and passed by the legislature solely on straight Republican Party–line votes, which restricts the bargaining rights of public employees and their unions.

The state’s 350,000 public employees have been joined by private- sector unions and national labor groups to mount the counterattack, prompting a ballot initiative that would repeal the law before it took effect. Some, including the teachers' unions, have even levied additional dues to help pay for the campaign.

So far, the unions have raised more than $30 million for the effort, dwarfing the $7 million raised by the Building a Better Ohio coalition and its allies, which are fighting to keep the current law.

“It’s an insane amount of money,” says Catherine Turcer, legislative director of Ohio Citizens Action, a nonprofit group monitoring state campaign spending. The campaign has already set a record for spending on an Ohio ballot measure, she says, adding, “I think we’re going to hit $50 million before it’s over.”

Union supporters collected 1.3 million signatures to get the measure on the ballot, a state record and more than five times the number required. The unions seem to have the momentum headed into Tuesday’s election.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed Ohio voters favor repeal of S.B. 5 by 25 points. The same survey showed Kasich, the Republican governor who aggressively supported S.B. 5, with an approval rating of 36 percent, making him one of the most unpopular governors in the country.

“We’re feeling the momentum and energy is on our side ...This is a referendum on basic worker rights,” says Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, which represents teachers and firefighters.

Green says his own polling shows pro-union forces with a lead closer to 12 points. The race will tighten because there are still many undecided voters, he says.

State Sen. Bill Seitz, one of six Senate Republicans to vote against S.B. 5, says he warned his GOP colleagues there could be a backlash. “I thought it was politically unwise. My gut told me it went too far …It would appear that many Ohioans agree that the bill was an overreach,” he says.

After Republicans won control of state legislatures and governorships last year, Ohio and states including Wisconsin, Florida, and New Jersey sought to curb the power of unions, seen as staunch Democratic allies. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that more than 700 bills targeting unions were introduced in 2011.

But those efforts have drawn a backlash. In Wisconsin, recall efforts succeeded in removing two state senators who voted for the anti-union legislation, and a recall effort has been launched against Gov. Scott Walker.

As in all things political, Ohio is a bellwether. If the union forces succeed in repealing S.B. 5, unions and their Democratic supporters around the country will undoubtedly be emboldened and Republicans and anti-union efforts undercut.

Unions also could use the extensive campaign network they’ve put in place here to support Democrats in 2012, including Barack Obama, who needs to carry Ohio to win reelection, and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is also running for reelection.

Included in the 300-page law are provisions to eliminate the right to strike and binding arbitration for public workers. S.B. 5 requires all public employees to pay at least 15 percent of their health-care costs and put 10 percent of their wages toward their pensions, something state employees in Ohio do already, although those contributions differ among cities and counties in the state.

Police and firefighters were also stripped of their right to collective bargaining in S.B. 5, alienating a group that had a history of voting Republican in Ohio.

Jerry Cupp, a Columbus police sergeant who voted for Kasich last fall, says, “I woefully regret my vote now.” Previously a Republican, Cupp, like many of his fellow police officers, now considers himself an independent.

Kasich and the Republicans said S.B. 5 was needed so local and state governments facing huge deficits could renegotiate public employee contracts and make the cuts necessary to balance their budgets. But the law went much further.

“If the bill was truly about saving money, then why are all the other things in it? This is a power play,” says Jon Harvey, a firefighter in southwestern Ohio and district vice president for the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters.

Andrew Doehrel, president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, which is supporting the original law, says Ohio has an uncompetitive business climate, and companies have been moving to states with lower taxes.

“When you hit hard times you’ve got to control costs,” says Doehrel of the need for the legislation.

Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman was one of the first Ohio mayors to come out strongly against the anti-union measure. “People are pretty angry. I’m confident that come Election Day Senate Bill 5 will be shot down,” Coleman says.

Coleman says he believes “collective bargaining works,” and he has been able to negotiate pension and health-care concessions with his city’s unions to cover budget shortfalls.

Ohio faced an $8 billion budget deficit when Kasich and the Republican legislature took over. But they “balanced the state budget on the backs of cities,” Coleman says, by making drastic cuts in state funds to local governments.

Toledo Mayor Michael Bell, one of the few Ohio mayors actively supporting the law, served as a firefighter and chief of the Toledo Fire Department for almost 30 years. An independent in a strongly Democratic pro-union city, he faced a $48 million deficit when he was elected in 2009.

Bell says he was forced to invoke an emergency procedure to require his public-sector unions to pay more for their benefits because they were unwilling to make concessions: “I gave them the books to audit and they said, basically, ‘It’s your problem.’”

At a time when revenue is down and people don’t want their taxes raised, “You have to do something to control the costs,” says Bell.

While Bell doesn’t think S.B. 5 is perfect, he says, “It’s better than nothing … If we don’t change we’re not going to survive.”

Another question on the state ballot could energize Tea Party and conservative supporters who also would vote in favor of S.B. 5. Ballot Issue 3 would let Ohio opt out of President Obama’s health-care reform, a choice that is popular with Tea Party forces.

The momentum against S.B. 5 may be why Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in an Ohio appearance last week, declined to take a position on the ballot measures, then later backtracked, saying he supported S.B. 5 “110 percent.”

Columbus Mayor Coleman says the importance of this election can’t be overestimated. “The implications of Senate Bill 5 go all the way to the White House and to the next governor’s race,” he says.