PART TWO: Battle for Workers Rights on the Ballot in Ohio — 10:15
This story was a special collaboration with Truthout. To read the print version, click here.
This election day, voters in the state of Ohio will be deciding whether to veto a bill which could decimate workers in one of the strongest remaining union states. In a special collaboration with Truthout, reporter Mike Ludwig went to Ohio, where he found a historic community organizing effort, facing off against record amounts of campaign contributions from increasingly faceless corporate donors.
SOUNDS OF PEOPLE IN OFFICE
Mike Ludwig: It’s a sunny Friday evening in Columbus, Ohio. About 60 people—mostly dressed in union t-shirts and jeans, are milling around the offices of the AFL-CIO. Many of these folks came here after a long week on the job….but there’s more work to be done tonight…With only 5 weeks to go before election day, the order of the evening is phone banking, and door knocking—talking to as many potential voters as possible, to warn them about what’s being seen as a threat to the very existence of Ohio’ working class.
Gillis: “Nobody is fooled, everyone knows what this is, and it’s an attack on working people…”
Ludwig: Mike Gillis is communications officer for the Ohio AFL-CIO. He says opposition to Senate Bill 5 has united private and public sector unions in a way never seen before.
Gillis: “…it’s trying to limit their ability to collectively bargain and organize as working people. So it would diminish their ability to fight for their interests in the elections and elsewhere.”
Ludwig: The volunteers organized tonight will be asking Ohioans to vote “No” on issue 2; that’s the referendum in question which would veto Senate Bill 5. SB5 would limit collective bargaining rights of more than 350,000 public workers, and force some to pay more in pension and healthcare costs. After Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature passed SB 5 by a single vote in March, volunteers took to the streets and collected an unprecedented 1.3 million signatures to put a veto of the bill on the ballot—almost 5 times the number of signatures needed.
Fazekas: “As soon as this bill came out of the governor’s signature, people were already engaged in saying, “What can we do — how can we stop this?” And so we had more than 10,000 volunteers out on the ground with petition booklets and getting people to sign….”
Ludwig: Melissa Fazekas is a spokesperson for We Are Ohio, the labor movement’s main group campaigning for a veto.
Fazekas: “We turned in all these signatures and literally the next day I started getting emails and phone calls, because of my information on the Internet, from people saying, “All right, I collected signatures. Now what do I do?” And it was July…people just couldn’t wait.”
Ludwig: Senate Bill 5 proponents claim the law will help city governments use funds more efficiently, and put public worker’s healthcare and pension costs in line with private-sector workers. If this sounds a lot like the battle that took place in Wisconsin earlier this year…that’s because it is. The legislation would have similar ramifications. The ideology comes from a like-minded, conservative governor—in Wisconsin it was Scott Walker, in Ohio, it’s newly elected John Kasich. And the money to fund the ‘yes on 5’ campaign itself is also coming from similar sources.
Fazekas: “Ohioans deserve to know who’s paying for these battles, and when they see a TV commercial they should know — OK, who’s behind this and what’s their agenda? …And they don’t.”
Ludwig: Building a Better Ohio, a GOP-linked group spearheading the campaign in support of SB5, set itself up as a non-profit fundraising arm to avoid revealing its contributors and finances. In one of their more controversial ads, they used video of Cincinnati resident Marlene Quinn talking about how fire fighters saved her granddaughter Zoey.
SOUND FROM AD: “If not for the firefighters, we wouldn’t have our Zoey today…NARRATOR: She’s right. By voting no on issue 2, our safety will be threatened. Without issue 2, communities will need to lay off hardworking firefighters, to pay for the excessive benefits of other government employees…”
Ludwig: But that video of Grandmother Marlene Quinn had actually been taken from a “We are Ohio” ad opposing Senate Bill 2, and edited to make the opposite case. Here’s the original.
SOUND FROM AD “If not for the firefighters, we wouldn’t have our Zoey today. That’s why it is so important to vote no on issue 2.”
Ludwig: Another recent ad featuring Governor Kasich doesn’t specifically mention issue 2 in the ad,. As a result, ‘Make Ohio Great’ the group funding the ad, doesn’t have to disclose information about their finances to the secretary of state’s office. Turns out, ‘Make Ohio Great’ is a non-profit project of the Republican Governors Association, or RGA.
Neither Building a Better Ohio, or the RGA responded to several requests for comment. But even with the numbers that are known, the intertwining paths of money and influence aren’t too hard to trace.
The RGA spent millions of dollars in 2010 on TV ads and mailers to help elect both Kasich in Ohio, and Governor Walker in Wisconsin. This came only months after the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in a case known as Citizens United, which opened the doors for corporations and unions to directly spend unlimited amounts both for and against political candidates.
Corporations have been able to use the RGA as a kind of campaign contribution proxy. Consider Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart, both companies with a record of opposing unions. During the 2010 election, Coca-Cola donated seven thousand dollars directly to Kasich’s campaign and ten thousand to his transition fund, but gave seventy five thousand to the RGA. Wal-Mart donated ninety thousand dollars to the RGA but nothing to Kasich directly. The RGA then used those contributions to pay for ads against Democratic incumbent Governor Ted Strickland, who Kasich defeated by a narrow margin.
Sound from anti-Strickland Attack Ad: “…seems like he pulled a Strickland and got busted. Newspapers said it was accounting errors, gimmicks. Hm, pulled a Strickland.”
Ludwig: Private healthcare, pharmaceutical companies, and other corporations also contributed tens of thousands of dollars to support ads attacking Strickland. Speaking at a rally in October Tim Burga with the Ohio AFL-CIO said the agenda is to eliminate the middle class.
Burga: “…this is an opportunity for the other side to completely cripple organized labor, so wall street the super wealthy, corporate CEOs, can have complete control of the public policy agenda, to create a permanent low wage work force, That’s what’s at stake here,.”
Ludwig: Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, abbreviated ALEC. ALEC brings together state legislators and corporate leaders from companies like Bayer, Pfizer, and Exxon-Mobile to draft model bills for state legislators seeking to advance a conservative, pro-business agenda. Governor Kasich is an alumni of ALEC, and in 2010 ALEC companies donated more than half a million dollars to him and other Republican legislators that supported SB 5. Mike Gillis from the AFL-CIO says legislation like SB5 is part of what the bang companies get for their campaign bucks.
Gillis : “It’s no coincidence that all these attacks come at exactly the same time and across a bunch of battleground states, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and others. They’re seeing the same types of laws being passed in the state legislatures and signed by their governors who are often in the pocket of the same people.”
Ludwig: But the Ohio bill’s authors may have made a fatal misstep in their political calculus. While Wisconsin’s now infamous anti-union law exempted police and firefighters, those first responders are included in the Ohio bill—and they’re not happy about the idea of losing their right to negotiate on their own working conditions. Cincinnati firefighter Doug Stern has been speaking at rallies across the state.
Doug Stern, Cincinnati firefighter: “Senate Bill 5, now Issue 2, is unfair, is an unsafe attack on Ohio’s first responders like myself, to put every man woman and child in this state at risk. I’m a firefighter and let me tell you what I know: I know how many fire fighters we need on the fire truck. I know how many firefighters it takes to put out a fire, and to rescue someone when time is critical. Any law that takes away the professional voice of firefighters…it’s unsafe to the community, and we won’t stand by and let it happen.”
Hirsh: “There’s a traditional understanding of Ohio that there’s about eight or nine blue counties and about 80 red counties, but when the republican legislature passed Senate Bill 5, they really started cannibalizing their own base.”
Ludwig: Kris Hirsh is with Stand Up For Ohio, a group leading the grassroots campaign to veto Senate Bill 5.
Hirsh: “They started going after the policemen and the firemen and the teachers in those rural areas that by traditional analysis had voted 1/3 republican. There’s always a strong sense that your corrections officers and your highway patrol’s and your police officers had a significant right-wing within their union, and when the Republican Party targeted them as the cause of our economic problems, they really stepped on their own foot.”
CHANTING: “The people united will never be defeated.”
Ludwig: Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, told volunteers preparing to go knock on doors, that the grassroots movement in Ohio is part of something bigger.
Cohen“You’re leading a movement here! You’re not just fighting back; we’re building a movement. Those students in Madison? They’re building a movement, and we followed em. Those young workers that are in the park on Wall Street, fighting Wall Street? Occupying Wall Street> They’re fighting back.”(Applause)
Ludwig: Many Ohioans have clearly been energized, and the ‘no’ side has been ahead in the polls for months. But money has also been a major factor. With almost 4 million dollars coming from national union offices to We Are Ohio, as of mid-October, the pro-union campaign had actually spent more on TV ads than their corporate-funded opponents. But labor activists are expected to be outspent in the next 2 weeks. Experts estimate the total cost of the Issue 2 campaigns could total between $33 and $40 million dollars. Whichever side prevails, there are likely to be many more expensive campaign battles in Ohio and across the country in the years to come; meaning the ultimate loser will be democracy itself.For Making Contact, in partnership with Truthout, I’m Mike Ludwig in Columbus, Ohio.