In Ohio, a Win for Unions—That Just Preserves the Status Quo
The campaign to repeal Ohio’s anti–collective bargaining bill felt and looked different from so many of the campaigns that I’ve been involved in over the past fifteen years. From the rallies with 20,000 people to a volunteer base of 10,000 to a community-organizing component that knocked on more than 100,000 doors this past weekend, this campaign was something new. And it holds potential for a deep and lasting alliance between labor, faith and community here in Ohio in a way that few could have imagined just a year ago.
I grew up in Ohio and am the grandson of a factory worker, a union steward for thirty years at Westinghouse factory. It was a job my grandfather worked so that my father could be the first one in our family to go to college. My father earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and went on to be an eighth grade teacher at a public school system here in Ohio, a job he would have for thirty years.
One of my defining political moments was a strike that my father’s union went out on fifteen years ago—also my first year as community organizer. Teachers’ strikes have a simple formula. The teachers strike. The schools are shut down. Parents and community members exert pressure on the board to settle a contract and a deal gets made. In this case, the School Board not only bused in scab teachers from Michigan and kept the schools open with 94 percent attendance, they hired paramilitary guards to stand at every school. The guards were dressed in full black military gear to “ensure” my father and other teachers would not be able to disrupt the flow of the normal school day.
After a period of time of being on strike and with no leverage to get the board to settle, many teachers began to struggle to pay their mortgages. The leadership of the union was defeated and school board broke the back of the union. They broke my father’s back. My father was on the verge of retiring and the state retirement system calculates your retirement payments based on the salary average of your last three years. He was considered out of work during the strike, lowering his average salary and permanently reducing his retirement. Meanwhile, the contract the teachers and the school board settled on was a 0 percent raise in year one, a 0 percent raise in year two and a 2 percent raise in year three. It was a humiliating defeat, and one that stripped my father of some piece of his dignity.
It has taken me a long time just to come grips with how angry I was and still am about that moment. I was angry not just with the school board or the scab teachers and paramilitary guards. I was angry with the community and all of the parents that my father sacrificed for. He worked every night grading papers, every Sunday preparing for the week; he organized a chess club at the school in his spare time. He sacrificed time with my brother and me to be one of the best teachers in Ohio, something he was recognized for nationally. Where were the parents of all of the kids that he taught over the years? Why didn’t they stand with him on the picket line and support the strike? Over time, my answer to this became that no one was organizing them.
That led me to be angry with the organizer who ran the strike. His strategy and tactics were to “wait out,” assuming the school board would cave. The organizer was old and tired… and had no heart for the fight that he flew in and out for. And finally, I turned that anger inward for being unable to help. I wished that I had known then what I know now about organizing.
I have been waiting fifteen years for the fight over SB5—for the opportunity to defend my father. When labor kicked off the citizens’ referendum, it was my organization that was contracted to run the allied outreach program to faith groups, students, community groups and veterans across the state. We also chipped in $100,000 to expand that strategy, lent the campaign our political director to serve as senior staff, raised money for a self-funded community voter program, and played a defining role in making the campaign a genuine community/labor partnership. I am tremendously proud of the fourteen staff we’ve had working on this since the spring. They recruited hundreds of churches and community groups and played a key role in building the 10,000 person volunteer base that proved to be insurmountable for the opposition.
This victory this week in Ohio has allowed me to have some internal peace about being powerless fifteen years ago. But it is also not lost on me that what we won tonight was merely the status quo—simply to keep the collective bargaining laws on the books that have been there for thirty years—and were there fifteen years ago during my father’s strike. And the governor and legislature have already said they will pass parts of the bill piecemeal in 2012.
I am tired of being in a progressive movement that often starts with the strategy of “how little can we lose by?” It is a strategy that is 100 percent defense. From that lens, the best we can do is maintain the status quo, which is one where we see the erosion of organized labor, increasing racial disparities, no accountability for Wall Street and the largest disparities in wealth since the 1920s. We have to learn to play defensive and offense at the same time. The next step here in Ohio cannot be what’s next for us to defend. It is time for us to go on offense and act boldly around our values and vision for how we create good jobs and strong communities.