labor Revitalized Union Power Helped Crush Attempts To Rig the System in Ohio
“We really put the pressure on the legislature not to do this — and the stories that came out of that, and the exposure that came out of that, revealed that something was terribly wrong with what they were trying to do here.” — Tim Burga, Ohio AFL-CIO.
It is said that history is written by the winners. But when it comes to big wins by organized labor, the corporate news media, itself fighting unionization at all costs, tends to ignore unions even when they are shaping history.
Missing from much of the coverage about Ohio voters’ rejection of the Republican legislature’s attempt to raise the threshold for voter approval needed to amend the state constitution from a simple majority to 60 percent — was the central role organized labor played in mobilizing and helping to defeat the scheme.
In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade, the Republican legislature pushed through some of the nation’s most draconian restrictions on abortion. In response, in hopes of replicating the electoral successes of pro-choice groups in several states like Kansas and Kentucky, Ohio pro-choice groups gathered over a half-million signatures to put a ballot question before voters this fall that would enshrine a right to an abortion in the state’s constitution.
The GOP countered by rushing to place before voters the referendum that was defeated on Tuesday by a 56.5 percent to 43.5 percent vote that would have raised the bar beyond the 50 percent plus one threshold where it had been for 111 years. Other GOP-engineered snares for ballot access that were defeated included a requirement that voters’ signatures for a qualifying ballot measure be sourced from all of Ohio’s 88 counties, as well as a prohibition on curing deficiencies on their petitions.
Missing from the New York Times narrative, was the central role of Ohio’s unions in the unprecedented August mass voter mobilization which is seen by some as a possible 2024 bellwether. The newspaper did go into great detail about the sources of millions of dollars spent by both sides on the highly unusual summertime electoral contest it described “as a test of efforts by Republicans nationwide to curb voters’ use of ballot initiatives.”
By contrast, Andrew J. Tobias, writing for Cleveland.com described organized labor as the “backbone” of the opposition to the Republican attempt to throttle voters’ agency to amend their state constitution and maybe a harbinger of a major realignment in America’s rustbelt.
Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, told Tobias the GOP defeat was “definitely a big moment for labor in Ohio” which the union leader said was now united in a way he hadn’t seen since 2011 when the Ohio AFL-CIO defeated a GOP referendum to curtail collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.
Ohio Federation of Teachers President Melissa Cropper told Work-Bites her 15,000 members played “a much bigger role than our size” thanks to their phone bank work and canvassing.
“It was an issue campaign — a good governance campaign,” Cropper said. “At the heart of this, all people still want is good governance in the state. It’s a deeply-seated value, this one person, one vote — majority rule — is just a deeply held value for most of the people in Ohio. That’s been our history and it’s worked for us, so we were able to put aside partisan politics and think about process and how important this value of majority rules is to them.”
Ohio, after voting twice for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, backed Trump in 2016 and 2020, thanks in no small measure to his success with winning a significant share of so-called “Reagan Democrat” union households.
According to the Washington Post, when it comes to gerrymandering, Ohio is a model of “unrepresentativeness” with Republicans controlling “70 percent of the state House and Senate seats even though the party has averaged around 54 percent in statewide races over the past decade.”
In a wide-ranging interview with Work-Bites, Tim Burga, president of Ohio’s AFL-CIO, said labor successfully built a broad-based coalition that exploited state house Republicans overreach.
“It started nine months ago, when they tried to pass this thing to rig the system for future amendments and we put up a real resistance in the legislature and it was a coalition with us, the federation and some good government groups, and then it grew and grew,” Burga said. “We really put the pressure on the legislature not to do this and the stories that came out of that, and the exposure that came out of that, revealed that something was terribly wrong with what they were trying to do here.”
When Republicans pressed ahead with the August vote, the Ohio AFL-CIO “just transitioned that into the electoral game. We had labor all united and keyed up ready to go. At that point it was about implementing our labor program to educate, inform and turnout the vote. That was our role and responsibility.”
“We start with 700,000 active union members in Ohio and our voter file would also have retirees and then household members of union members — and our community affiliate Working America — we are at about 1.4 million voters that we can touch for all sorts of occasions,” Burga said.
The union president credits labor’s clout with voters in Ohio to the movement’s 71 percent public approval rating which he links to the elevation of essential workers during the pandemic and a reappraisal of work as well as unionization.
According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022 Ohio saw the third-biggest jump in union membership nationally, adding 52,000 workers, bringing total union membership to close to 700,000. That put Ohio’s union density at 12.8 percent, as compared to 10.1 percent nationally. “Only California, with an increase of 99,000 union workers, and Texas, which added 72,000 union members, posted larger gains,” reported Signal Cleveland.
“The pandemic really opened peoples’ eyes up and they started asking ‘what am I doing here — why am I working and not getting ahead. I am spinning my wheels here. There’s got to be a different solution,’” Burga said. “And organized labor was out front during the pandemic putting our bodies and lives on the line by just going to work, so I think people had this opportunity to sit back and take stock and say we need to have some rights in the workplace because we want better wages, safer working conditions. We want sane scheduling. We’d like to have some healthcare and retirement security.”
Burga’s said February’s catastrophic Norfolk Southern rail disaster, which resulted in the release of a vast quantity of vinyl chloride in and around East Palestine, Ohio re-enforced the public’s perception that unions were a vital counterweight to the increasing concentration of corporate power.
Norfolk Southern, as one of just seven Class One railroads, down from close to 50 in the 1980s, reportedly increased its payout to its shareholders by some 4,500 percent while it cut its railroad workforce by a third before the Ohio catastrophe. This was achieved by slashing costs, successfully resisting regulation, and deploying more costly technology as the rail carrier made their trains longer, heavier, and much more profitable.
“With that East Palestine thing, we were able to get some pretty good state legislation like manned locomotives and rail sensor modernization,” Burha said. “Unions are seen as an honest broker, what our mission has been all along which has been moving economic and social justice. We don’t have any hidden agendas and we support those in politics who support us.”
But Burga concedes that for all the uptick in organizing in Ohio and across the country, unions “are still having trouble getting first contracts in too many cases” with companies that are willing to just pay whatever fines they rack up by violating labor law as a strategy.
“It’s been a problem for a very long time,” Burga said. “One of the most critical labor law reforms that we need is binding arbitration to get a first contract done in a fair time. There’s organizing drives and unions being voted on like Starbucks here in Ohio, but not able to get contracts through. That’s a critical component but all the momentum is moving in the right direction.”
Burga continued, “For the first time, coming out of the pandemic, workers said we have leverage here — they need us. It was a collective awakening that workers are valuable, and that when we come together, we can make things better for ourselves, our families and in doing so it makes our communities and society better as well as makes our economy work.”
Work-Bites is taking a bite out of all that. We’re a team of dedicated labor writers with decades of combined street cred covering every facet of the American Labor Movement, and dedicated to upholding the public’s inalienable right to know. Like the rest of our working class sisters and brothers, we’re fed up with powerful people playing the rest of us like chumps. We’re resolved to applying the highest standards of journalistic integrity to chronicling workplace injustices — spotlighting exploitation — revealing criminality — and heralding the truly heroic.
If the worldwide corona virus pandemic has done anything, it’s obliterate the outdated notion the bosses have any concern for us or our families. Despite the elites, we remain essential — and we know it. Work-Bites is dedicated to telling those stories and telling them to you straight. BECOME A MEMBER