“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.