“This was an election about the 99 percent, said Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown on the day his home state overwhelmingly rejected the anti-labor agenda of Republican Governor John Kasich. “The 99 percent is pushing back.” Brown is right. But what was especially significant about the November 8 referendum vote in Ohio and a number of other elections around the country that day was the extent to which they sent specific signals about the willingness of the 99 percent to push back against both Wall Street and the big-money politics that has so skewed the national discourse. At the same time, they rejected attacks on abortion rights, immigrant rights and voter rights.

There’s always plenty of spin to go around after an off-year election, as politicians and pundits attempt to find amid the electoral tea leaves a theory of all things political. But the message from Ohio was not open to interpretation.

“This is the only time I know of in the history of the United States that collective bargaining has been on the ballot,” said Brown, a pro-union Democrat who staked his political future (he’s up for re-election in 2012) on a stand with the labor movement that Republicans have attacked and more than a few Democrats have kept at arm’s length in recent years. “Voters had a choice. Do they want workers to have a voice? Do they want unions? The choice couldn’t have been clearer. The answer couldn’t have been clearer.”

The genius of a referendum result is the clarity it provides. Ohioans were asked whether the state should implement dramatic changes in labor law that Kasich and his legislative allies had passed to limit the ability of public employees to organize unions with the muscle to advocate effectively not just in the workplace but in the political sphere. Despite an aggressive campaign by Kasich and big spending by national conservative and corporate interests, Ohioans sided with public workers and their unions.

“We didn’t ask for this fight,” said AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka as he rallied hundreds of union activists on the morning of the Ohio vote. That was certainly true. But perhaps labor should have asked. As painful, and as expensive, as this year’s fights in Ohio, Wisconsin and other states have been, they have renewed the confidence of a movement that was almost universally portrayed as being in decline. Faced with life-or-death struggles, unions did what critics—and, to be honest, even some supporters—doubted was possible: they overcame old differences between public and private sector unions, abandoned the bureaucratic responses that earned labor organizations too many comparisons with dinosaurs, renewed an old-school militancy and combined it with an effective embrace of new technologies and new strategies for coalition building.

And they won. Big.

To be sure, the win was defensive rather than offensive. Ohio unions and their allies across the country were not organizing new members or winning better contracts. They were defending what they had. But that’s no small victory, coming just one year after the Republican sweep of the November 2010 elections was heralded by GOP strategists, the Tea Party movement and the chattering class as a “transformational” rejection of progressive ideals, of public sector responses to big challenges, of government itself. Now a poster boy for the conservative movement has been rebuked by the voters of Ohio, and another poster boy, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, is threatened by a recall drive that begins November 15.

Those aren’t the only indications from the November 8 elections to suggest that the conservative “wave” of 2010 has crested. Mississippi voters rejected an anti-abortion proposal that would have defined “personhood” as beginning at fertilization. And Mainers restored the election-day registration rule that Republicans sought to eliminate as part of a broad assault on voting rights. The two seriously contested gubernatorial elections of this fall played out in states that voted for John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008, and that saw significant Republican gains in 2010. Yet in 2011, both West Virginia and Kentucky elected Democratic governors. And in Kentucky, the state that sent Rand Paul to the US Senate just a year ago, Democrats did not merely cling to the governorship; they won significant victories up and down the ballot.

In New Jersey, Republican “golden boy” Governor Chris Christie, who so many conservatives hoped would seek the party’s presidential nomination, could not even win critical local battles. Christie recruited GOP candidates, raised millions and campaigned aggressively to shift control of the State Senate from the Democrats to the Republicans. He failed. An Iowa special election win kept Democrats in control of the State Senate. And in Arizona, voters removed State Senate president Russell Pearce, the author of that state’s draconian anti-immigrant law.

Conservatives did post some wins this fall. But they tended to be concentrated in the Southern states, where the party has been on the march since 1964. In politically competitive battleground states like Ohio and Maine, the message was not so much one of Democratic renewal as it was of progressive appeal.

It was more than just partisanship that tipped the balance in Ohio. While national Republicans and their corporate allies sided with Kasich, President Obama kept his distance from the referendum fight. And Democratic Party stalwarts in the state ended up following labor’s lead, reversing the usual electoral calculus. One of the most striking things about the referendum fight was the extent to which the language employed not just by union members but by Democratic leaders was that of labor solidarity; on MSNBC’s The Ed Show, which broadcast live from Columbus, Congresswoman Betty Sutton bluntly declared: “We’ve been in a class war for a long time, but it’s only been the upper 1 percent that has been using all their power and all their money to look out for themselves. It’s time that the 99 percent wake up.”

There are lessons here for 2012 that ought not to be lost on Democrats, who will face a turbulent and uncertain politics in the year to come. The Republican moment of 2010 may well turn out to have been just that: a moment. But that does not mean voters will reflexively embrace Democrats next year. The indication, especially from Ohio, is that when the issues are clearly defined, and when voters are given a chance to push back not just against Republicans but against an austerity agenda that is as anti-democratic as it is anti-worker, the 99 percent will, as Sutton suggests, wake up. John Nichols