Sunday, May 15, 2011

Update on the Public Employees Struggle in Ohio

Given T's post on Wisconsin, the Democrats, and other labor struggles around the country, I thought I'd post a little update of what we've seen here in Ohio over the past couple months. It's amazing how these movements can at once be so inspiring and mobilizing, and yet make you hopeless and disappointed.

Ohio Gov. Kasich and his Republican juggernaut in the state house (rare products of 2010 confusion in this traditionally labor-friendly state) pushed through SB5 in almost record time. The bill stripped public employees of pretty much every tool they use to make a union have any impact whatsoever (including binding arbitration and strikes), and did not exempt fire fighters or police. For the two or three week period the bill was in committee, there were massive protests at the Ohio Capitol in Columbus. A couple of these protests brought in over 20,000 people, record numbers in recent Ohio history. Though the protests never reached the magnitude of Wisconsin ones, we were clearly inspired by what we'd seen there, and labor supporters were crawling out of the woodwork.

Suddenly, friends and colleagues who I'd always known to be rather apathetic were attending rallies and singing labor tunes. During most of the protests, police succeeded in blocking crowds out of the building itself, claiming it was for "safety purposes." Though there were a few prior skirmishes on the capitol steps, the protesters were strangely respectful of these decisions and remained outside (though there would be chants of "This is our house! Let the people in!").

But here's a little video from inside the Statehouse, a week before SB5 was set to pass, taken during Kasich's State of the State address. On this day, it seemed clear there was no keeping us out of the statehouse, and we filled the main atrium, at times, drowning out Kasich inside the legislative chamber with our voices. Lawmakers and press stood at the top of the stairs taking pictures and video of us. Some Democrats came out to cheer with us at various times. It was clear this was a spectacle people at the Statehouse had never seen before. It was invigorating.

In the week it became certain the bill would pass, a coalition of student activists from Ohio State University and union members plotted to make this resistance more militant and more aggressive. This bill was going to pass, but it wasn't going to pass without making Kasich and company get their hands dirty. They were going to occupy the statehouse. Firemen agreed to participate and be arrested in some civil disobedience, alongside students and other activists. Leadership from a few unions vowed their support and offered money and legal services to handle the consequences. There were trainings on how to act when arrested and what to say if questioned by the media.

About 12 hours before the action was set, the activists heard from union leadership and the AFL. There would be no occupation. There would be no civil disobedience. There would be no arrests. If students carried the plan through, the unions would condemn us in the media and distance themselves from us. SB5 was going to pass quietly. And we were going to channel our resistance into a referendum battle, whether we liked it or not.

Unlike Wisconsin, there is no apparent legal loophole to pursue to get SB5 overturned. We've gone a strictly referendum route. What could have been occupations and maybe someday strikes are now petition drives and will soon become get out the vote efforts. It's clear this is a strategy that serves Democrats. They get liberal voters to the Ohio polls. They pull the rug out from anyone who might want to take a more radical route that threatens their stranglehold on labor. They vow their support for labor without any of the icky problems that come with actually supporting workers' power.

And instead of this turning into demands for higher taxes on the rich or other solutions to the state's budget crisis, we're going to skirt the budget problem altogether. We're not going to get the chance to challenge the discourse of scarcity driving all this madness. We'll let the Right cut from every where else, including the social safety net many of these same public employees already depend on, and we'll all go to the polls and vote. We might get rid of SB5, but any real labor movement will be dead. Democrats will demand that we stick with them in 2012, in order to make sure SB5 doesn't happen again. And the cycle goes on and on.

Any hope remaining? Yes. I've talked to countless union members (public and not) who are absolutely fed up with this system. They are fed up with their union leadership and with the Democrats. They want more.

1 comment:

t said...

Awesome post. I hope you'll be keeping us updated with regular dispatches from the front lines of the class struggle in Ohio! I share the feeling of surprise at seeing previously apathetic colleagues roused into a political fervor as a result of the situation.

Has there been any discussion of strike action to oppose the bill? It was my hope that this discussion would reach a mass scale in Wisconsin, but it never did for many objective reasons (e.g. lack of rank-and-file militancy within the unions, 30 yr decline of the radical left, etc.). But, even if our side loses in WI, OH, CA, IL, NY, MI, etc... I hope at the very least that people are learning valuable political lessons about how the system really works. Hopefully we can at least win new folks to the need for building an independent, radical left capable of making a difference in volatile political situations such as the present.