Ohio voters dealt a severe blow to the agenda of Governor John Kasich and other anti-union governors by voting to overturn Senate Bill 5 (SB5) by a 61 to 32 percent margin. SB5 was a law championed by Kasich that would severely limit collective bargaining rights for public employees and targets public employee wages and benefits as a means to balance the state's budget.
After the bill passed the legislature in March, unions and their supporters swung into action and submitted 915,246 certified signatures required to place the issue on the ballot for a statewide referendum. Ohio law allows for this type of "veto referendum," but does not allow for the recall of governors. Over 3,497,000 ballots were cast in the referendum vote -- and it appears to have passed with substantial Republican support.
The months that led up to the election garnered national attention as a fight against right-wing governors who were not only anti-union, but were fundamentally anti-government -- using the economic downturn to shrink and transform state governments.
A chastened Kasich struck a conciliatory note on election night: "It requires me to take a deep breath and to spend some time reflecting on what happened here."
Workers Will No Longer be a "Scapegoat" for America's Economic Woes
Richard Trumka, the national president of the AFL-CIO, spent the final days of the campaign on the ground in Ohio. "They scapegoat public employees who are hard-working, honest-to-God (employees), and do a great job. They scapegoat. For what? To give more tax breaks to the people who caused this (economic trouble)," he said. "Today, people are saying, 'Enough. Enough. We're not going to take that anymore'." The AFL-CIO has worked hard to make Wall Street pay for collapsing the global economy and putting 8 million Americans out of work. The union thinks that raising taxes on Wall Street should come before asking teachers, nurses and firefighters to sacrifice more.
Lee Saunders, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, echoed this theme: "Hardworking middle-class families will no longer be the scapegoat for the nation's economic woes."
Labor leaders credited an unprecedented coordination between public-sector workers, private-sector workers, building trades and industrial workers. In the final days, the unions ran an ad cut by former astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn who applauded the "everyday heroes" teachers, nurses and firefighters. "Ohioans don't turn their back on the people who have theirs," said Glenn.
Big Money on Both Sides
In the months preceding the election, a "who's who" of right-wing front groups flooded the state with undisclosed pro-SB 5 spending. Groups like the famous "Citizen's United," Mary Cheney's "Alliance for a Better Ohio," Dick Armey's "FreedomWorks" and the Republican Governors Association came into the state in support of Kasich's "Build a Better Ohio" group. They worked tirelessly to convince voters that the state was broke, that public workers were greedy and overpaid and that there was simply no other way to balance the budget.
In recent weeks, these groups starting complaining about being "outspent." FreedomWorks Director of Campaigns Brandon Steinhauser told the press: "We were vastly outspent, and will likely be outspent next year. But going up against the unions is always tough." But Steinhauser neglects to mention that there is no way to tally what these groups spent in the race.
The unions raised some $30 million and have been repeatedly cited as the "big money" in the race. But the unions organized "We are Ohio" as a formal PAC so that every donation and expenditure is recorded and open to scrutiny. Total spending on the other side of the issue will never be known because many of the corporate-funded groups have organized as non-profits, meaning they can keep their funding and spending secret.
"Collective Bargaining is How We Built the Middle Class"
The pro-SB5 was overwhelmingly rejected by the voters. The referendum represents the first time in American history that collective bargaining was put to a statewide referendum and it passed overwhelmingly. At rallies this week, Trumka made a simple point: "Collective bargaining is the ladder to the middle class. It's how we built the middle class."
After the vote, Leo Gerard, the President of the United Steelworkers of America, celebrated the fact that even Republican counties voted to reject the Kasich austerity agenda. "People get it. Teachers and firemen did not send 55,000 factories offshore in the last decade. Nurses did not crash the global economy."
"They Watch Us, They Learn from Us"
This week, Kasich told the press, "We can't have local governments dragging us down and making it more difficult to bring those jobs in here. And I tell you this, the rest of the country, these other states, they watch us, they learn from us."
The next battle in the fight for workers rights looms in Wisconsin. On November 15, Wisconsin Democrats plan on filing their own recall papers against Scott Walker.
What has Walker learned from Ohio?
Last night, Walker told the media that he thinks that Wisconsin's situation is different. "I think voters see that it works, the reforms have protected our schools and our taxpayers. They didn't see that in Ohio. These are very different circumstances, a very different state," said Walker, who had previously boasted of his close ties to Kasich and how the two governors were working in lockstep.
Time will tell if Walker will be successful with the "it is working" message, which is now being pushed out by Americans for Prosperity on Wisconsin TV ads.
In September, Wisconsin lost 11,500 public sector jobs. October numbers are not yet in.
Wisconsin Democrats had a different take on the Ohio election. "Today's vote in Ohio is just another indicator that Scott Walker and the Republican Party are out of touch with the will of the people. The vote is just a sign of what is about to happen all over the country to Republicans who follow the ALEC playbook. There is no place in America for right-wing extremist ideals that place politics before people," said Rep. Mark Pocan.
CMD's Emily Osborne contributed to this report.