Here in Ohio

I went back to Ohio/But my city was gone—Chrissie Hynde

On a day when former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel was elected mayor of Chicago, and as Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators camped out across the state line in Illinois, hoping to derail Governor Scott Walker’s “budget repair bill” that would severely restrict public employees’ unions, thousands of pro-union protesters in Ohio joined former Governor Ted Strickland and traveled to Columbus, the state capital, where the legislature plans new hearings on a bill that would end collective bargaining for state workers and dramatically reduce bargaining power for local workers, including public school teachers, police officers, and firefighters.

As a native New Yorker who has lived in Ohio for the past twenty-seven years, I’ve followed the Wisconsin story with guarded hope. I watched news footage of seventy-thousand people rising up in protest to occupy the state capitol, saw the pictures of the “Thunderdome” in the state rotunda, heard the rallying cries about how “Cairo is coming to Madison” and how the “people of Egypt are sending pizza to Wisconsin,” and found it all inspiring. Michael Moore keeps pumping up the volume with his tweets about high school students who are engaged in the struggle. This is what democracy looks like, right?

But was what was happening in Madison portable? Could this be the start of a movement across the country? Could this uprising in Madison be the start of what Jacques Derrida had in mind when he wrote of “the democracy which is yet to come,” a body-check to transnational capitalism and a decisive blow to fascist hopes of a corporate owned state?

Linda McKinely is a teacher from Mansfield, Ohio. Her husband Greg Parman is a union carpenter. With them in Columbus  was their daughter Kylee, a seventh grader. Kylee was off from school because it had snowed seven inches and she had a snow day. Linda and Greg told me they had braved the snow and drove two-and-a-half hours down the I-71 corridor because they were convinced that Gov. Kasich and the Republicans in the Ohio Legislature were determined to destroy collective bargaining in Ohio.

“Unions built the middle class in this country,” Linda said. “What they are doing is trying to destroy what we spent decades trying to build.” She said that she couldn’t understand why Kasich was so determined to end collective bargaining, when unions had contributed so much toward the creation of good paying jobs in Ohio, the very kind of jobs that had been disappearing from the state for years. Ohio has lost over 300,000 jobs, mostly in the manufacturing sector.

I asked Kylee what she thought of the protest. “I’m here to learn,” she said. “I want to know what is going on.”

Greg thought that the situation was more dire in Wisconsin, as the Republicans there seemed to have the votes to ram through what they wanted, while in Ohio, he had heard, there were five Republican senators who were still on the fence.

I spoke with a guy standing next to Greg who wore a cap that said UAW, Union 1112. He told me he was from Lordstown, near Youngstown, near the Pennsylvania border. I asked him what he did and he told me he was a cleaner, that he made good money cleaning buildings, and that he was proud of his union. But a Lordstown retiree he knew had seen his prescription medicine go from $5 to $60. “That’s just wrong,” he said. “We’re losing our benefits left and right.”

He pointed to a big guy standing nearby, and said, “Go talk to him, man.”

Glenn Johnson is Vice President of UAW 1112 in Lordstown. He’s about six four, with rugged good looks. He looks like he came from central casting for union organizers. When I reached him he was leading cheers for the crowd. “We miss Ted, We miss Ted,” he bellowed. The crowd took up his chant. Ted is former Governor Ted Strickland, who, it was rumored, was in the crowd. “Make no mistake,” Johnson told me. “Senate Bill 5 is designed to strip collective bargaining rights from the public employees of this state. What they are trying to do is un-American.” He went on to say that the unions had already made significant concessions during the budget crunch, but that the budget was a smokescreen. “This is about power,” he said, “pure and simple. It is about payback to Kasich’s Wall Street buddies and to the big corporations who gave us this damn recession in the first place.”

I wanted to ask Johnson his opinion of Rahm Emmanuel, who was involved in the negotiations that led to the bailout of those same Wall Street firms, and about President Obama’s tepid support for his union brothers and sisters in Wisconsin and Ohio, but he was taking up another cheer. After a few minutes, I asked him if he thought Greg Parman was right, that enough Republican votes could be found to stop Senate Bill 5 from passing.

He shook his head, no. “Look, we don’t have the votes. It’s not like Wisconsin, where they have enough Democrats to prevent the Republicans from having a quorum, where they can actually block a vote. Here, the Senate is twenty-seven Republicans and ten Democrats. The votes are just not there.”

I asked him what he thought would happen. “There will be consequences,” he said. “Every election has consequences, and we are dealing now with what happened in November. But we have long memories. We are willing to deal with this state legislature and this governor, and we have made concessions, but there is no reason why we cannot reach a budget agreement and still protect the right of the people to organize and to engage in collective bargaining. We came to this rally to support our right to collective bargaining, and that right is in jeopardy, and that is why we are here.”

Jim Amore is a firefighter from Newark, Ohio. He told me he had fifteen firefighters with him from Newark, and that none of them had called in sick. They were off duty that day, and had travelled to Columbus in solidarity with other firefighters from around the state. As we were speaking, a marching band went past us. The crowd cheered wildly, and all together the sound was deafening. The band was a group of firefighters from around the state, men dressed in plaid kilts and black knee socks and wearing firefighter hats, many of them with the buckeye logo, the symbol of The Ohio State football team.

Jim Amore has been a firefighter for twenty-six years. He told me that his union had already given away 7 percent in concessions. He added that he drove a fire truck that was fifteen years old. Trucks are supposed to be replaced after seven or eight years. He was totally opposed to Senate Bill 5 because it would end collective bargaining, and that the firefighters of Newark were united in opposing it.

“What you are seeing here is a global movement pushback,” said Victoria Parks. She is a housekeeper and an associate union member, married to a union guy. “The unions want to stand up for the middle class,” she said. “We do not have enough economic base in our communities, so it is important to organize to create and to keep good jobs.” Parks went on to say that she thought this was just the beginning. “Actually, it started in Egypt,” she said. “Then it went to Wisconsin. Unions are the one strong voice the middle class has and it won’t be taken away. We will fight.”

I moved from the center of the crowd to the rear, where I ran into a guy who told me that he had been to Washington to receive training in “rapid response” organizing. Noting that the protests in Madison had continued now for over a week, with turnouts of up to seventy-thousand people, I asked him if there were further rallies planned in Columbus. He told me he didn’t know yet, he hadn’t heard of any. “As the bill goes through committee, though, I am sure we will be back.”

That didn’t sound too promising, nor what the people of Egypt were sending pizza for.

I went back into the crowd and met a young woman named Laura Einsel. She carried a red sign with black lettering that read, “I can’t believe I have to do this!” I asked her what she did for a living and Laura told me she was unemployed. She had landed a job right out of college working in arts education, teaching and coordinating arts outreach programs for minority kids in Cleveland. She had loved her job, she told me, but lost it in the recession. I asked her what her sign meant.

“I just can’t believe we have to do this,” she said. “I mean, I am appalled at the way my state government is trying to destroy unions. I am only 25, and I am already laid off, and this is crazy.”

I asked her where she went to college and she told me she went to Oberlin, where she  majored in art and comparative American studies. Oberlin is one of the most prestigious private liberal arts colleges in the nation, and one of the most expensive. I resisted the urge to ask her how much debt she had incurred in student loans. Instead I asked why she was at the rally. “I’m here to stand in solidarity with the people of Wisconsin and Ohio,” she said.

A Teamster worker from Cincinnati named Mark Agnor repeated the point about Senate Bill 5 being about political payback. “Kasich is paying back his corporate sponsors, giving tax credits to the rich and taking it out on the middle class and the lower classes.” The energy and the excitement of the rally, he thought, would provide a counterbalance to the Tea Party.

I asked Agnor if he thought the Tea Party was behind the push for Senate Bill 5. “Oh, absolutely,” he said. “The Tea Party is fully behind this effort.” He told me that the Cincinnati area is very conservative, particularly the suburbs, where the Tea Party is strong, and where people get their news from Fox News and AM talk radio. “It’s  right wing all the time, man, on the airwaves. The Tea Party has convinced the middle class that the problem in America is poor people. Liberals always fight up, against corporate greed and interests at the top of the pyramid, but conservatives fight down. Conservatives demonize poor people, and they have got the middle class brainwashed. I am very discouraged with how things are in Cincinnati.”

Ted Strickland had reached the front of the crowd.  A loud cheer went up. He started to speak but no one could hear him. Someone handed Strickland a bullhorn.

“Let me tell you what you really want,” Strickland shouted into the bullhorn. “You want respect. You want collective bargaining. You do honest work and deserve respect.  What we are fighting for is the middle class. This bill is a political power grab. We will not give up, and we will not give in. This is the beginning!”

Strickland has a light tenor voice, and his voice was cracking every time he screamed into the bullhorn. I wondered why the organizers hadn’t arranged to have a public address system in place.

“You are not responsible for the recession or the deficit that was caused by greedy Wall Streeters. You have been scapegoated! You are in a huge fight.  This is an expression of people power. We will ultimately prevail. We need to multiply this crowd five times and come back here!”  His voice cracked again. “A radical governor and legislative leadership are trying to undo what it took decades to build.  This is the greatest threat to democracy that I have seen in my lifetime, because if they destroy organized labor they destroy democracy. Power to the people!”

During the 2010 governor’s race, Kasich managed to hang the loss of 300,000 Ohio jobs around Strickland’s neck, even though the majority of those jobs were lost during the Bush tax cut era. Strickland was also hurt, near the end of the campaign, by NRA anti gun-control forces, particularly in the rural part of the state.

The former governor of the state of Ohio led the crowd in a chant. “Hell no we won’t go! Hell no we won’t go.”

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the bulwark of modern democracy has been the trade union. Union activism has always fought for the protection of civil liberties. This is why the first Germans that Hitler put in concentration camps were neither Jews nor gypsies—they were trade unionists.

The attacks on state workers in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere have nothing to do with balancing budgets. That could easily be done without destroying collective bargaining.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in a speech at the Riverside Church in New York in 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated, warned of the “unholy trinity of materialism, racism, and militarism.” Governor Kasich, two months into his term, has yet to appoint a single African American as a member of his cabinet. And in all of the noise about federal and state deficits, no one has seemed to take up King’s point about the increasingly staggering military budget. The US currently spends $180 million a day waging war in Afghanistan. No one seems to know how much we continue to spend in Iraq, on a war no one seems to want to talk about. The entire economic crisis now gripping the US can be directly traced to the military budget, which exceeds the sum of what’s being spent by all other nations combined. In a brilliant recent column, Robert Greenwald points out that the entire alleged shortfall in Wisconsin—a shortfall equivalent to the amount of tax cuts recently granted by Walker to the richest folk in Wisconsin—could be covered by bringing just 180 troops home from Afghanistan.

For the radical right, this is an opportune time to consolidate power and work to destroy natural opponents. The crowd in Columbus, Ohio understood clearly that the new governor and his allies want to bust unions, the last organized force standing in the way of total corporate control of the United States by the rich and richer.

As this struggle continues, three points seem especially important. 1) The material essence of fascism is the extreme separation of rich and poor, a massive transfer of wealth from those on the bottom to those on the top. 2) The bulwark of modern democracy, and the best friend of the middle class, is the trade union. 3) Points 1 and 2 have not engaged significant numbers of voting Americans.

Judging from the size of the crowd gathered in Columbus, workers in Ohio face an uphill struggle. At most, the crowd numbered 2,000. Almost all were members of unions in Ohio. There was little support from non-union members of the middle class. This is not Wisconsin. The democracy which is yet to come still seems to be one that is yet to come in America.

As Ted Strickland walked away from the crowd, he passed right by me. I offered my hand to him, and he shook it. It occurred to me that I had never heard an ex-governor criticize his successor in the manner in which Strickland had just criticized Kasich. His hair is ginger, going toward gray, and as he walked slowly away, I realized that Strickland had spoken to the crowd while standing just a few hundred feet from his former office on the first floor of the Capitol.

He looked tired. He  looked like another guy out of work in Ohio.

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