Ohio Workers, Services Under Fire

Against the Current, No. 152, May/June 2011

Michael Connery

AS IN SO much of the country after the recent election cycle, a newly-elected Republican administration has taken the reigns of state government in Ohio. The centerpiece of their ambitious austerity agenda is the notorious Senate Bill 5, which will severely restrict the collective bargaining rights of most public sector workers in the state. The bill has galvanized a section of Ohio workers to a degree not seen a decades. On March 31, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed SB 5 into law, but the movement to defeat the bill still carries on.

SB 5, one of many similar legislative attacks on public employees in several states, most notoriously Wisconsin, contains a number of provisions that both directly and indirectly undermine the bargaining rights, working conditions and compensation of public employees. The most damaging of these is the removal of bargaining rights over a wide array of items, including retirement and health care benefits.

What few negotiating rights remain are rendered meaningless by the bill’s abolition of third-party arbitration. No longer will a “neutral” arbitrator step in to resolve contract disputes. The legislatures will now effectively dictate the terms of a contract. The state can also suspend salary and benefit increases and modify entire contracts if a vaguely defined “fiscal watch” is declared.

Public workers are also deprived of the right to strike, and face steep penalties if they do so (an earlier version of the bill even mandated jail time for striking). These are just some of the more audacious components of the bill. And unlike the Wisconsin law, which cleverly exempts police and firefighters, SB 5 reduces their rights as well.

Beyond simply targeting public employees, the bill will have severe repercussions for the quality of Ohio’s public services, particularly education. Teachers will no longer be permitted to bargain over class sizes and other aspects of their “work environment.” This will obviously lead to ballooning classroom rosters and place further burdens on the state’s already encumbered educators.

Also barred from the bargaining table are clauses that prohibit the state from privatizing any state service or department. This will now give the legislature a free hand to sell off public entities. Kasich is already aiming to partially privatize Ohio’s lucrative state-operated (and unionized) liquor enterprise.

Students in the Lead

The fight against SB 5 thus far has been fairly muted compared to the historic upsurge in Wisconsin. There has been significant resistance to defend the rights of public employees. From the outset, though, the struggle in Ohio has lacked the raw, grassroots energy of the Madison mobilizations. The major players of organized labor and the Democratic Party have carefully stage-managed the movement and acted to limit opposition to safe, manageable lobbying and largely symbolic demonstrations at the state capitol in Columbus.

This is not to diminish the importance of these mobilizations, some of which have seen up to 25, 000 public employees and their allies converge on the capitol, a level of organized resistance this state has not seen in decades. But with the mainstream labor response largely top-down and difficult to influence at the rank-and-file level, the student movement against SB 5 has proved to be the most dynamic wing of the struggle.

Student groups have formed at over a dozen colleges and universities to organize in solidarity with public workers and to fight an accompanying set of attacks on public education. Campus organizations have carried out a number of successful teach-ins and walkouts throughout the state. Many of these groups have coalesced into a state-wide coalition that is planning a week of action in late April.

This emerging student movement has been successful in very clearly illustrating the connection between the scapegoating of public employees and cuts to public education. At a recent protest in Columbus, one student activist noted, “This isn’t just an attack on public employees. It’s part of a broader attack that includes students, public services, and working people generally.” For example, SB 5 reclassifies many university faculty as “managers,” thus completely curtailing their ability to legally organize.

With the bill now signed by Governor Kasich, SB 5 is set to become the law of the land. However, the Ohio constitution allows newly passed legislation to be put to a ballot referendum if a requisite number of petition signatures are obtained. This is the avenue the AFL-CIO, the Ohio Democratic Party and other labor and progressive organizations are pursuing.

Opponents of the bill have 90 days from the date of passage to collect 231,147 signatures. Given that organized labor and the electoral machinery of the Democratic Party will be out in full force for the petition campaign, this threshold will be easily met. Petition language has been submitted to the Ohio Attorney General and is pending approval.

While the development of a referendum campaign will be important in repelling the attacks on Ohio workers, there exists the danger of the movement losing its momentum by being routed solely into electoral channels. It is clear that the Ohio Democratic Party aims to capitalize on the energy around SB 5 to stage a comeback in the next statewide elections.

Defeating SB 5 at the ballot box will be an important victory for the nascent resistance, but not sufficient to turn the wider tide and put working people back on the offensive. To accomplish that we will need a movement that will encompass not just unionized public employees, but all those affected by the services that public employees provide.

As other commentators have noted, this nationwide assault on American workers will either spell the effective end of the 20th century labor movement or the beginning of a renewal. How the fight unfolds in Ohio will greatly influence the outcome.

ATC 152, May-June 2011