Opponents of Ohio Governor John Kasich’s push to strip public employees of collective bargaining rights—as part of a national push by newly elected Republican governors to silence opposition to their cuts in funding for public education and services — needed to collect 231,000 valid signatures to force a referendum that would override anti-labor legislation enacted by Kasich and his allies.

That was a tall order. But the labor and community groups that have come together to defend public employees, teachers, schools and services have exceeded it —by more than one million signatures.

With petitions carrying 1,298,301 signatures packed in 1,500 boxes carried by a semi-truck, organizers of the We Are Ohio campaign and thousands of their allies marched to the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office in Columbus Wednesday—one day before the deadline—to file the paperwork necessary to force a November vote on overturning Ohio Senate Bill 5 and Kasich’s attack on labor rights.

“We stood at the Statehouse today where thousands of hardworking Ohioans stood earlier this year protesting SB 5,” declared We Are Ohio’s Melissa. “While their voices were drowned out by the extreme politicians who decided to pass SB 5, today We Are Ohio wants [to] let them know their voices will be heard.”

Wednesday’s festive Million Signature March—complete with bagpipes, drum lines and antique fire truck blaring their sirens offered a taste of what is to come in a referendum campaign that labor leaders say will be the most energetic the state has seen in decades—perhaps since the famous 1958 referendum in which historically Republican Ohio rejected an anti-labor “right-to-work” law and swept Democrats into the governorship and other state posts.

If this fall’s referendum passes, as polls suggest it will, the actions of Kasich and the legislature will be voided and collective bargaining rights will be restored for state, county and municipal employees and teachers.

The stunning success of the Ohio petition drive parallels the pushback in states across the country, where citizens have refused to accept the assaults on labor rights, public services and public education proposed by newly elected Republican governors and their legislative allies.

After last November’s election victories for Republicans in states such as Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Maine, new governors and legislative majorities moved quickly to enact a dramatically more extreme agenda than they ran on during the 2010 campaign. At the heart of that agenda has been an attack on labor rights and labor organizations—with an eye toward silencing unions in the workplace and the political sphere, where they remain the strongest defenders of public education and public services.

The Republicans moved quickly because they wanted to use the element of surprise against a battered opposition—and because they wanted to weaken labor in battleground states before the 2012 presidential and Congressional elections.

But the anti-labor push met with fierce opposition, first in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker’s proposed legislation drew mass demonstrations of as many as 150,000 people outside the state capitol in Madison. The demonstrations in Lansing, Indianapolis, Columbus and other capital cities quickly grew in size. But so, too, did the recognition that electoral strategies would need to be coupled with the protests.

In Wisconsin, tens of thousands of signatures were gathered in petition drives that have forced recall elections against six Republican senators who backed Walker’s agenda. Primary elections associated with those recalls will begin July 12, with the runoff elections in August. If three GOP senators are removed (and if three Democratic senators who have been targeted by Republicans retain their seats), control of the state Senate will flip to the Democrats and Walker will no longer have complete control of the governing process.

Ohio does not have a recall provision. But it does allow citizens to force a vote on legislation recently passed by the legislature. The Ohio petition drive, which began a statewide phenomenon, has yielded the largest number of signatures ever gathered in the state’s history. In fact, the almost 1.3 million signatures filed Wednesday represents one of the most remarkable examples of petitioning for the redress of grievances—and of popular democracy—in American history.

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