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The Union-Rights Vote in Ohio

There was an enormous amount at stake in yesterday’s vote in Ohio on whether or not public employees—including professors at public colleges—would continue to have the full right to bargain collectively. By an overwhelming margin of 61 percent to 39 percent Ohio voters rejected a law backed by Republican governor John R. Kasich to severely curtail union rights for teachers, firefighters, police, professors, and other public employees. Had the vote gone the other way, it would have dealt a devastating blow to one of the few highly potent sources of political power for American liberalism.

Under legislation passed in March—and now voided by voters—more than 350,000 public employees in Ohio would have seen their right to bargain cut back significantly. Public employees would have been barred from negotiating over health care and pensions and from striking. They would also have been prohibited from negotiating over staffing; teachers, for example, wouldn’t have been able to bargain over reduced class size.

The most controversial provision of the law, known as SB 5, would have gone even further than Wisconsin’s recently passed collective-bargaining law by providing that if management and labor could not come to an agreement, city councils and school boards would be able to unilaterally pick from among the last best offer made by each side. One state senator told Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times, it would be like “going to divorce court and finding out your wife’s father is the judge.”

For higher-education unions, the legislation would have been particularly devastating.  As Peter Schmidt noted in the Chronicle, the measure would have hobbled “public colleges’ faculty unions by reclassifying most of their members as managers who are precluded from union representation.” (Wisconsin’s law also strips faculty and academic staff unions in the University of Wisconsin system of collective-bargaining rights.)

Republican supporters of the law argued that the legislation was necessary to hold down government costs in times of tight budgets, but Ohio voters weren’t buying it.

For one thing, there is evidence that the legislation was motivated at least as much by politics as by fiscal policy. Labor unions provide the primary counterweight to the business community on a range of issues and have been mostly decimated in the private sector, where union density has declined from 35 percent in the 1950s to less than 7 percent today. Public-sector unions, who represent about the same proportion of employees today as private-sector unions did in their heyday, provide significant financing and manpower to Democrats in elections. That SB 5 was about political power more than fiscal austerity was underlined by inclusion of a provision making it harder for unions to collect dues. This feature seemed aimed at weakening a progressive ally as opposed to saving the government money.

For another, voters didn’t seem to buy the idea that teachers, firefighters, and police officers are at the root of our budget problems. Many Ohio voters seemed to realize that it was Wall Street’s risky bets, not the actions of public servants, which caused the Great Recession, which in turn produced red ink in state and local budgets. Greenhouse quotes Phil Hayes, a high-school social-studies teacher: “As someone who set out to serve his students, I don’t work on Wall Street; I serve Main Street…We don’t sell collateral debt obligations, but we do sell cookies to help keep our schools going.”

Ohio voters also seemed unwilling to go along with efforts to pit middle-class public employees against middle-class private workers. Public-sector workers want “better pay and benefits from us,” one anti-union advertisement suggested. “Better job security than us. Better retirement security than us. All paid for by us.” In fact, public employees have in recent years made considerable concessions, and the fact that some public employees still enjoy decent health care and pension plans raises another question: rather than leveling down, maybe more private-sector employees should unionize to enjoy basic health and retirement security as well?

But perhaps most of all, the Ohio vote suggested that Americans still recognize that in a democracy, every one has a basic right—enumerated by Article 23 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights—to band together and pursue collective interests through a union. That right doesn’t disappear just because an individual is an employee of the government.

In the private sector, the American labor movement has already been decimated by weak union laws. A 2010 report from Freedom House finds that 41 nations provide more freedom for workers to organize than does the United States, and that the U.S. “is almost alone among economically advanced democracies in its lack of a strong trade union movement in the private sector.” The de-unionization of the private sector over the last half century has helped facilitate disastrous increases in inequality.

If labor’s opponents in Ohio—America’s industrial heartland—had managed to cripple public-sector unions as well, conservatives would have helped destroy one of the few institutions exercising progressive political power in this country.

For those concerned about the future of higher education in the United States, a vote the other way in Ohio would have had a devastating effect on much more than faculty unions. It would have set back the entire progressive movement in this country, a force which fights every day for the very idea of American public education at all levels.

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