Swing-state Ohio at heart of union rights battle

Share via

In this former company town, an aging smokestack marked with “Hoover” in tall white letters stands like a tombstone over the union jobs lost when the vacuum-cleaner factory shut down in 2007.

The decision to shutter an icon of America’s industrial heyday, made by the company’s new Hong Kong owners, was another step in labor’s relentless slide in a state once known as a union stronghold. Now, organized labor is facing an existential test in Ohio, a showdown with implications for next year’s presidential election.

Republican Gov. John Kasich recently signed a new law sharply curtailing the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Labor and its allies responded by promoting a ballot measure to repeal it this fall.


“This is a spark for labor and the Democratic Party,” said Jim Repace, who once led the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers unit at the Hoover Co.

“They needed a kick in the butt.”

In this chapter of the national struggle between unions and a new wave of GOP governors, most of the passion now is with organized labor, battered by an industrial shakeout that slashed its Ohio ranks by more than one-third in recent decades. Those losses would have been more severe were it not for the strength of public employee unions, which now represent a majority of unionized workers.

Statewide polls show that voters would roll back the new law if the election were held today. But even those who think Republicans face an uphill fight expect it to be close. The governor, in an interview, expressed confidence that attitudes will shift once his side’s media drive cranks up.

“Do you think that a person working in a day-care center making $9 an hour wants to subsidize a city worker who’s paying 9% of their healthcare costs? I don’t think so. So it’s just a matter of education,” Kasich said between bites of a grilled cheese sandwich at his ceremonial Capitol office in Columbus.

“As people find out what this is all about — the balance between the taxpayer and the tax receiver — I think things change. I think people [will] say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize that. Why am I paying for a school superintendent that doesn’t pay for their own pension when I don’t even have one?’ I mean, it’s not that complicated.”

Ohio’s state employees pay 10% of their salaries into a retirement fund, but more than 2,000 local governments pick up all or part of workers’ pension contributions.


Kasich, like new Republican governors in other states, is using the need to balance the state budget as a rationale for aggressively reversing policies that have benefited public employee unions. Ohio’s law, perhaps the most far reaching of such efforts nationally, affects all unionized public workers. That includes police and firefighters, who are more likely to vote Republican and were made exempt by Wisconsin Republicans in a similar fight that has attracted greater media attention and larger crowds.

The battle brewing in Ohio could be more consequential than those in Wisconsin and other states. For one thing, it will be more expensive. Wisconsin’s labor fight spilled over into a Supreme Court election this month, generating voter turnout equivalent to a hotly contested presidential primary. Special interests spent $4.5 million on the election; in Ohio, spending in the recall battle could reach $50 million or more.

Moreover, the repeal campaign is playing out in an archetypal swing state whose presidential vote is up for grabs again next year. The outcome could provide an early clue to one of 2012’s most intriguing questions: Did the recent midterm election, which dealt President Obama and the Democrats a bruising defeat, signal a return to the conservative Republican dominance in American politics?

Ohio is older and less diverse than most of America. Just one in 50 state residents is Latino. Stagnating population growth has cost it clout, but Ohio still has more electoral votes than any other tossup state except Florida. Presidents are rarely elected — or reelected — without winning here. Obama carried Ohio in 2008, though by considerably less than his national victory margin; 2010 featured a statewide Republican sweep in the midterms. Ohio is “tough, but winnable” for Obama next year, said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

The drive to repeal SB 5, as the new law is formally known, is already prompting an early start to the 2012 ground game. The Obama campaign, stung by publicity about a White House effort to generate protest crowds in Wisconsin, is keeping a low profile. But the Democratic Party is fully engaged. It is providing technical assistance and support for the repeal effort, recruiting thousands of volunteers and generating voter lists for canvassers.

“What we’re doing 18 months out [from the presidential election] would ordinarily happen eight months out,” said one official, requesting anonymity to discuss internal strategy.


Another factor that should favor Democrats: Municipal elections in largely Democratic cities and towns are the main attractions on the 2011 ballot on which the referendum would appear. To defeat the union initiative, Republicans will try to target rural and suburban voters who might otherwise be on the sidelines.

In such a closely balanced state, “oftentimes it is the campaign that makes the difference,” said Eric Rademacher, who directs the Ohio Poll at the University of Cincinnati. “Ohio voters,” he added, “do not always fall into the sorts of frames that one might expect.”

That is true even among Republicans, torn between those who favor curbing union rights and those who feel the issue will backfire.

Republican State Sen. Bill Seitz sees “a very large risk that the political energy is shifting back in favor of the Democrats.” A partner in the law firm founded by Robert A. Taft, author of the Taft-Hartley Act, a postwar response to labor’s rising power, Seitz describes the new Ohio law as “so relentlessly anti-union that it goes beyond what management lawyers think is necessary to rebalance public sector management and labor rights.”

“It’s overreach. In my opinion it’s overreach,” said Seitz, a conservative from Cincinnati who voted against the measure and was subsequently stripped of a committee chairmanship by Republican leaders.

Alan Harold, a Republican county auditor in northeastern Ohio, said Republicans were suffering from a public perception that the new GOP majority tried to do too much too quickly. “It’s this mentality that it was just rammed at us. No compromise,” said Harold, who was co-chairman of Kasich’s campaign in Stark County.


The union measure seems destined for the ballot: 231,147 signatures are required by June 30 to put it before voters in November, a relatively easy task in a state whose 8 million registered voters include 650,000 union members, in addition to union relatives and retirees.

In Stark County, halfway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, evidence abounded of the emotions stirred by the fight. Gregory Kinsey, 41, president of the Stark County Sheriff’s Deputies’ Assn., said he never would have voted for Kasich had he known the governor would heap additional pain on top of pay freezes his union accepted in recent years. Many government workers will pay more for health insurance under the new law.

“I just can’t believe he’s doing this,” Kinsey said.

County corrections officer Eric Changet, an 18-year veteran who also backed Kasich and opposes the union measure, says the referendum will be close.

Hard-pressed voters who don’t work for government “think it’s time for someone else to take a hit,” he said.

With stakes high for both parties, Mary Beth Medford, vice president of the Canton Professional Educators’ Assn., expects an ugly campaign.

“This is such a pivotal state,” she said. “The outcome can help determine how Obama is going to do in the presidential election.”


Dan Sciury, head of the AFL-CIO Hall of Fame Labor Council in Canton, can still remember knocking on doors 53 years ago in a divisive campaign that defeated a Republican effort to make Ohio a “right-to-work” state. Twenty-two states from Virginia to Nevada have such laws, made possible by the Taft-Hartley Act, which prohibit requiring union membership as a condition of employment.

“This is the most excited I’ve seen our members since ‘58,” Sciury said. He also predicted — as do others on both sides of this year’s fight — that if labor’s referendum fails, a new Republican right-to-work push will likely come next.