Judgment Day in Ohio

It may be that all the millions of dollars spent by both sides and the tens of thousands of precinct walks they (well, chiefly labor) undertook in the battle to repeal Ohio’s Senate Bill 5, which nullified the collective-bargaining rights of the state’s public employees, merely ensured that Ohioans would vote the way they originally intended to. The latest poll taken before today’s election—from Public Policy Polling (PPP), completed this past weekend—showed that voters backed repeal by a whopping 23-point margin, 59 percent to 36 percent. As PPP noted, voters also backed repeal by a 23-point margin when they were first polled back in March.

Initially, as Republican Governor John Kasich’s war on unions was moving through the state’s legislature, liberals feared that popular opposition was tepid. In Wisconsin, the crowds of protestors swelled to 100,000 in opposing that state’s legislation curtailing public employee’s collective-bargaining rights. The one demonstration in Columbus, by contrast, drew a scant 10,000. Had Ohio gone missing?

Apparently not, though we won’t know for certain until the votes come in tonight. Columbus may not have been Madison, a college town with a tradition of protest, but Ohio had other progressive traditions, as became evident when 1.3 million state residents signed petitions to put Issue 2—the referendum on Senate Bill 5—on November’s ballot. Indeed, Wisconsin liberals, lacking the option of a referendum, had to rely on the clumsier tactic of recalling the Republican state senators who’d passed that state’s anti-union bill. While they did manage to prevail in a couple of recall contests, they fell short of their goal of flipping the Senate into Democratic hands. If the polls are right, today’s vote in Ohio should have a more decisively pro-union outcome.

One reason for the difference in outcome is Kasich’s overreach. Unlike the legislation pushed by Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s GOP governor, Kasich’s bill did not exclude police and firefighters from its provisions. Cops and firefighters tend not to be lefties in places like Ohio (if indeed, they are anywhere), and their unions often endorse Republicans. That was one reason why Kasich’s bill split the Republicans in his legislature (Walker’s bill had unified GOP support in his statehouse), and why 30 percent of Ohio Republicans in the latest PPP poll said they planned to vote for repeal.

When the campaign began, Kasich had hopes of winning the referendum. Those hopes were pinned on voters like Dennis, the aging industrial union member I encountered in Canton at the end of September while accompanying a canvasser for Working America, the AFL-CIO’s door-to-door canvass operation covering one million voters in Ohio’s working-class neighborhoods. A run-down man in a run-down house on a run-down street, Dennis was boiling with resentment at the sweet deals he believed Ohio’s public employees had received, while his own union had been compelled to take less in each successive round of bargaining. “Compared to what they get, we got a very small raise,” he told the canvasser, complaining particularly about public-sector workers’ benefits.

Mike McMahon, who coordinates Working America’s Canton canvass, provided Dennis with plenty of empathy—Mike had lost his job when his employer, a furniture manufacturer, up and moved to China; he understood the stresses of Ohio workers—and he also provided some numbers to counter Dennis’ impressions of public-sector largesse. But Dennis would have none of it. Repeal, he insisted, “will just make my taxes go up.”

But if Kasich has been counting on the anti-union, anti-public-sector, anti-Obama sentiments of white working-class voters like Dennis, he’s likely going to come up short. One of the arguments that has helped counter the concern over the relative advantage that public-sector workers do enjoy when it comes to benefits is that by curtailing bargaining rights, the state would deny cops and firefighters the ability to maintain safety standards. The argument that’s worked best, said Working America national director Karen Nussbaum, is that “firefighters know how many people they need in their crew.” On a front porch down the block from Dennis’s home, McMahon invoked this argument to persuade Crystal, a woman plainly exhausted by the children scurrying around her, to back the measure. In response to Mike’s first argument -– and second, third, fourth, and fifth, too –- Crystal simply intoned, “It’s all crooked.” But Mike was a pro, and by the time he turned the discussion to cops and firefighters knowing what’s best to protect public safety, Crystal had perked up and appeared to be won over.

Unions may well prevail in today’s contest thanks to thousands of Mikes knocking on hundreds of thousands of doors, and to Kasich’s overreach in trying to rewrite the social contract of the once-industrial Midwest. Victory by a large margin might well convince Republican governors in other states not to emulate Kasich, who has seen his own polling drop to the lowest level of any governor in the land. That’s one of many reasons why the unions have not let up as the election has drawn near.

But even if unions win a famous victory, it will be in a totally defensive battle. The two great union campaigns of 2011, in Wisconsin and now Ohio, have been directed merely at preserving the social contract of the 20th century, now that Republicans have taken it into their heads to repeal it. As for offensive union battles this year, there have been none. Organizing has ground to a halt with the failure of the Congress in 2009-2010 to enact a reform to labor law that would have made forming a private-sector union possible again. Unions may have figured out, at great expense and with considerable tactical smarts, how they can stave off imminent extinction, but any efforts to expand remain blocked by law and money. Unions will have a great night if they prevail today in Ohio. Tomorrow morning will nonetheless dawn cold and gray.

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