They chanted “This is our house! Let us in,” and “kill the bill” outside the state Capitol on Tuesday as a light winter drizzle fell. But they weren’t in Wisconsin. They were in Columbus, Ohio, the state’s capital where lawmakers inside the building were scheduled to hear testimony on SB 5, a bill that would ban collective bargaining for state employees and severely restrict it for local government workers and public school teachers.
About 15,000 Ohio public workers had come to Columbus from all over the state to voice their rage over SB 5, but when they tried to enter their Capitol, officers from the Department of Public Safety would allow only a fraction into the building, supposedly because of safety concerns.
As it turns out, the head of Department of Safety is a political appointee of Ohio Governor John Kasich, the driving force behind SB 5. If Gov Kasich had any hopes that keeping opponents of SB 5 out in the cold would dampen their spirits he was wrong.
Public workers and their supporters remained outside in the cold demanding that their voice be heard. A sign carried by one of the workers expressed their determination. It read, “I’ll give up my union card when you pry it from my cold dead hands.”
“We’re standing together and speaking in a clear, unified voice that (SB 5) is wrong for Ohio and a tragic distraction from what we should be focusing on: creating jobs and preparing Ohio’s students to fill those jobs,” read a statement by the Ohio Education Association, whose members were at the Capitol.
Gov Kasich says that SB 5 is needed to close Ohio’s $8 billion budget deficit. But collective bargaining didn’t cause the deficit; in fact, contracts negotiated by public worker unions have saved the state $250 million. What SB 5 is really about is busting unions and lowering living standards for the working class.
“This is bigger than unions,” said John Lyall, president of Ohio AFSCME Council 8. “This is about all working people. (SB 5) is not about creating jobs with benefits that allow a hard worker to provide for his or her family.”
Unions fighting SB 5 have been taking this message to the larger working class community. The Communication Workers of America, which represents some public and higher education workers in Ohio, has organized a community-wide coalition called Stand Up for Ohio: Good Jobs and Strong Communities, “To help each other fight for issues critical to workers, families and strong, safe communities,” said Seth Rosen, CWA District 4 vice-president. “The politicians have a strategy of divide and conquer. “Our strategy is unite and win.”
SEIU has been holding town hall meetings like the one that took place in Youngstown Monday night when hundreds of union members and community supporters packed a meeting in Youngstown to hear leaders and rank-and-file union members denounce SB 5 as a union busting, job-killing bill.
At press conference with local clergy in Cincinnati, Robert Richardson, an SEIU member, said that SB 5 is an attack on the middle-class that takes away basic civil and human rights.
Private sector unions are worried about the impact that SB 5 will have on local economies in a state that is still suffering from the aftermath of the Great Recession. At a February 17 hearing on SB 5, Don Watkins, a meatcutter from Coldwater, Ohio and member of United Food and Commercial Workers testified about how SB 5 would hurt his community. “If our firemen or other public employees like teachers make less money or lose their jobs (because of SB 5), it is less likely that their dollars will stay in our communities and create jobs in Coldwater (Ohio),” Watkins said.
Watkins also told lawmakers that he knew firsthand the difference between working in a union and non-union shop. “Before working in Coldwater, I worked in a non-union store, and I was not able to provide my family with the quality of life they have now,” said Watkins, a 46-year old widower.
Another UFCW member, Bonnie France also testified at the hearing saying, “This state is hurting for jobs, and I don’t understand why the Honorable Senator (Shannon) Jones, (SB 5’s sponsor) would introduce this bill that will kill jobs.”
When it became apparent on Tuesday that workers were determined to be heard, the Department of Public Safety finally relented and opened the Capitol doors as the hearing on SB 5 got underway. Thousands rushed inside. The next public hearing on SB 5 will take place on Thursday, February 24.
The attack on public workers, and for that matter all workers, isn’t just taking place in Ohio and Wisconsin, it’s going on all over the country. You can find out more about the attacks and action being planned to resist them here and here.