A black eye in the Buckeye: The unions flex their muscles in Ohio
The Economist - November 12, 2011
The Economist Nov 12th 2011 | COLUMBUS, OHIO | from the print edition
IN TOUGH economic times it might well seem reasonable to suggest that public-sector workers need to contribute a bit more, or to admit that their unions have extracted some unreasonably generous benefits. Even Democrats such as Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, and Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, have said public-sector workers need to tighten their belts. Yet in Ohio the public-sector reforms of the Republican governor, John Kasich, were roundly rejected in a ballot on November 8th.
Earlier this year Ohio’s legislature narrowly approved a bill that banned public-sector workers from striking and greatly restricted their collective-bargaining rights—for example by preventing them from bargaining over health-care benefits. The legislation sparked widespread, union-led, demonstrations that mirrored earlier protests against similar laws in Wisconsin and Indiana. However in Ohio, the state constitution makes it possible to force a public vote on legislation, and by July activists had collected nearly three times the number of signatures they needed to do so.
In the 2010 gubernatorial election, Mr Kasich defeated the Democratic incumbent by promising to address a large budget deficit and stem a tide of job losses. Ohio has shed around 600,000 jobs in a decade—something that only Michigan and California have managed to beat. The new governor interpreted his mandate as standard Republican fare of public-sector restraint and tax cuts.
Something, however, went badly awry, as 61% of voters ended up choosing to repeal Mr Kasich’s collective-bargaining legislation this week. His reforms were widely interpreted as an unfair attack on ordinary Americans. Although some states, such as Texas and Virginia, ban collective bargaining and others restrict it, in Ohio the reaction to this proposition has been far more hostile. The idea that the law went too far reached across party lines, with one conservative commentator saying it offered unions nothing more than collective begging.
The scale of Mr Kasich’s defeat probably came about because his opponents cleverly blended a national debate about inequality with local arguments over what is fair to workers—particularly to the popular firefighters and police. A powerful coalition of public- and private-sector unions united to campaign against the reforms, and to turn the referendum into a broader national argument. The unions made an effective job of selling the idea that Mr Kasich’s tax cuts for the wealthy, such as eliminating inheritance tax, have come at the expense of ordinary workers. Even people who profess not to care much for organised labour say they voted against the legislation.
Amy Hanauer, of Policy Matters Ohio, a left-leaning think-tank, thinks that fear about inequality played a large role. Voters were “not interested in hurting other working people in the name of lowering taxes,” she argues. There is also an issue of tone. Most people in Ohio like to see themselves as moderates, but straight after his election Mr Kasich took an especially punchy conservative line. He enthusiastically told lobbyists at one lunch that if they didn’t get on the bus that “we’ll run over you”. He added for good measure “and I’m not kidding.”
Hope for Mr Obama?
Faced with a sound thumping, Mr Kasich said only he would catch his breath and gather his thoughts. The unions, meanwhile, are not missing a beat. Their next target is the Republican governor of Wisconsin. They are seeking signatures for a vote to unseat Scott Walker and predict they will have enough for a ballot next April, which will be another test of the mood of the heartland.
Looking towards the 2012 election, some strategists think the Ohio result strengthens Barack Obama’s hand in this most critical of swing states. The front-running Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, supported the collective-bargaining legislation, something that Tim Ryan, a local Democratic congressman, smilingly describes as “very helpful”. As for Mr Kasich, while licking his wounds, he must find a way to boost approval ratings now stuck at around 33%. Otherwise, he is more likely to be a hindrance than a help to the Republican nominee next year.