In Ohio, a labor showdown looms


In the vengeful world of politics, what goes around often comes around.

After the November midterm elections in Ohio in 1994, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, Harry Meshel, received a telephone message: A county commissioner had called asking for Meshel’s resignation in the wake of the calamitous election, in which Republicans won control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in two decades and won all five statewide elected executive offices.

The county commissioner who asked Meshel to resign, Chris Redfern, later became Democratic Party chairman in his own right, a job he still holds today. So after Democrats repeated their 1994 losses last fall — every statewide elected office* and the House — Meshel, who had kept his receptionist’s “while you were out” note from 16 years before, had a message of his own for Redfern.

“Thought you might like this reminder of your ‘warmth’ toward me after I suffered the defeats of ’94,” Meshel wrote. “You failed miserably! … Get lost!”

Democrats in Ohio have plenty of experience with regret and recrimination. After all, it’s been a rotten two decades for the donkey in Ohio.

Since 1991, Republicans have controlled the governor’s office for 16 of 20 years, the state House 14 of those years and the state Senate for all 20. The GOP put its renewed power to use earlier this year by restricting the collective bargaining rights of public employees; Democrats want to repeal the bill in order to protect their allies in the public sector unions.

Given Ohio’s importance in presidential elections — it has gone with the winning candidate in 27 of the last 29 contests — the battle, just like the recently completed state Senate recalls in Wisconsin, is garnering national attention.

The last time Democrats had complete control of the governor’s office and the state legislature was the 1983-84 legislative session, when they passed the state’s (generous) collective bargaining bill for public employees (not a single Republican voted for it). Despite having total control of the legislature and governor’s office for a 12-year stretch since then (1995-2007), the Republicans didn’t mess with the law.

But Ohio’s Republican leadership is more conservative now than it has been in at least half a century, and with John Kasich as governor and William Batchelder, a legendary behind-the-scenes conservative, as speaker of the House, the Republicans set out to smite public sector unions in Ohio.

Amidst major union protests at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus and bonebreaking arm-twisting by GOP leaders, particularly in the Senate, Republicans passed — without a single Democratic vote — sweeping changes to the collective bargaining law. The bill greatly limits the collective bargaining rights of public employees, effectively making Ohio a Right to Work state for firefighters, police officers, teachers and others. It also forbids public sector unions from charging non-members for bargaining the unions do on their behalf. In other words, it would greatly diminish public unions’ political power in Ohio by depriving them both of funding and, effectively, of purpose: Why would public employees even join unions that couldn’t really accomplish anything through collective bargaining? That’s the real point of the legislation: hurting a major Democratic constituency and limiting a major source of funding to Democratic campaigns.

Democrats and labor successfully forced a referendum, Issue 2, on the law. In November, voters will decide whether to keep it or pitch it. Polling seems to indicate they favor labor’s position: Nonpartisan pollster Quinnipiac, in late July, reported that 56% favored repealing the law while only 32% wanted to keep it. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic outfit, reported narrower support — 50% to 39% — for repeal in a more recent poll.

Kasich, likely sensing that the measure would go down to defeat, recently said he wanted to negotiate a truce that would take the referendum off the ballot; labor, which wasn’t given a real opportunity to negotiate when the bill was passed in March, unsurprisingly declined. It would have been as if the British Lord Cornwallis, surrounded on all sides by the Americans and French at the final major battle of the American Revolution at Yorktown in 1781, had sent a messenger to Gen. Washington: “Hey, sorry about this horrible misunderstanding. How about you stay in the empire and we’ll roll back that tax on tea?”

The trouble for the Democrats and for labor is that, even if they triumph on Issue 2, the legislature could simply go back and pass a less draconian bill, although Republican legislators might be wary of such an effort. And complicating matters is that a statewide ballot issue exempting Ohioans from the federal health care bill requiring Americans to carry health insurance also will be on the ballot. An anti-“Obamacare” ballot issue might be a good way to boost conservative turnout in an off-year election.

Ohio is not a state with a historically dominant labor movement (as opposed to, say, Michigan). But every once in awhile, labor puts up a fight. In 1958, for instance, labor mobilized to defeat an initiative that would have made Ohio a Right to Work state. Right to Work not only failed miserably, but Democrats romped in statewide elections that year and made a governor out of Mike DiSalle. DiSalle was the last Democrat to defeat an incumbent Ohio Republican governor (C. William O’Neill). While three incumbent Democratic governors have lost reelection bids since then — DiSalle as well as John Gilligan and, last year, Ted Strickland — Republican incumbents have a perfect record of winning second terms in that time period.

Democrats may think that Kasich, muddling along with a mid-30s approval rating according to both the aforementioned Quinnipiac and PPP polls, is a sitting duck when he’ll likely stand for reelection in 2014. But the governor has picked the right time to be unpopular: at the start of his term. And a defeat on Issue 2 could give Kasich a convenient out to stand up to his fellow Republicans in the future by saying that he tried it their way — not just kicking the Democratic beehive, but trying and failing to set it on fire — and it didn’t work.

The backlash against anti-labor legislation in Ohio and in Wisconsin (where Democrats recalled two GOP senators) could be a lesson to partisans on both sides of the aisle: in our two-party system, it’s very hard — and it may not be in your best interest — to get everything you want even if you control the government.

Ohio Democrats appear headed for a triumph, but one that probably will have little bearing on the future. The battle likely will be forgotten by November 2012, when President Obama is back on the ballot, and especially by 2014, when Kasich presumably will be running for a second term. That said, the preservation of union power — and fundraising — would be a significant victory in and of itself for Democrats.

Meanwhile, if labor and their Democratic allies somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory — well, let’s just say the aftermath, like in 1994 and 2010, might not be so pretty.

*Full disclosure: I worked for one of those Democratic statewide officials, ex-Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray, from February 2009 to January 2011 in his Policy and Public Affairs unit.