COLUMBUS, Ohio – Republicans intent on passing legislation that would cripple Ohio’s unemployment compensation system received a major surprise, and setback, last Tuesday, as over 400 unionists packed the statehouse in opposition. They’d planned to quickly pass it, with little notice, in the lame duck session of the legislature. The bill was an attempt to deal with the system’s underfunding, a problem actually created by Republicans.
“It was Republicans cutting taxes for businesses that created the crisis in the first place,” stated Zach Schiller, research director for Policy Matters Ohio. “Benefit levels aren’t the source of the unemployment trust fund’s weakness, inadequate taxes are.”
The hundreds of union folks rallied first at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Columbus, then marched the few blocks to the statehouse, where they broke into delegations, and met with their representatives. They demanded that no bill be passed that cuts benefits, taxes on employers be raised to support the system, and that real, public hearings take place on any changes, not any backroom quickie in a lame duck session.
“We completely took them by surprise. They were terrified,” said Norm Wernet, Ohio president of Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA). “They thought they’d just shove this through, no problem.”
“They stumbled and bumbled all over themselves when [Ohio AFL-CIO president] Tim Burga mentioned the possibility of a public referendum. They almost crap themselves anytime we bring up SB 5!”
He was referring to the 2011 bill, SB 5, passed by the Republican majority, that would have wiped out public employee bargaining. It was killed by a massive union-led mobilization that put forward an electoral referendum opposing it, which passed by a huge majority.
“Employers have been shortchanging the system for far too long, creating the solvency problems for the system,” stated AFL-CIO president Tim Burga. “Ohio’s working people deserve a sensible reform package that preserved the modest benefits, doesn’t place undue burden on unemployed workers, and that doesn’t diminish this important safety net.”
Central Ohio labor fed President Dave Caldwell felt that it was a successful day.
“When we come together like this,” he said, “nothing stops us. We’re also fighting for local businesses. If benefits to the most vulnerable are cut, nobody will have money to shop, and those little mom-and-pop stores are most likely to go out of business.”
After meeting with representatives, the union members all headed for the Statehouse Room, where a hearing on the GOP proposal was to take place. Packed to standing room only, they waited, and waited, and continued to wait for the hearing to open. Scheduled to start at 1 pm, the crowd was still in place after 5 pm, when the bill’s sponsors finally called the day.
“They kept trying to wait us out, hoping we’d leave,” said a laughing Bill Bowers, UAW representative. “The more they stalled, the more we determined to stay put!”
After a four-hour wait, Cincinnati Republican Lew Blessing, one of the bill’s sponsors, came into the room. He stood in front, glaring at individuals in the crowd. Addressing those assembled, he loudly proclaimed, “This is official business, and we’ll not tolerate any outbursts!”
Hundreds in the crowd reacted with incongruity, looking around in confused silence. Then, they started laughing. While everyone enjoyed the joke, the pompous “representative” left.
“It’s really been a great day. We’ve felt bad after the elections, but this really helps us all,” said Monica Morgan, who works with the pro-labor group Progress Ohio. “I went back to Youngstown to connect with people here, but this day has helped everyone’s spirits.”
Ohio AFL-CIO legislative director Matt Smith was also happy with the day’s work.
“We’ve forced them to back off, but the fight is by no means over. They’re putting HR 620 forward as their new bill. We’re urging everyone to contact their reps to urge them to (1) hold real public hearings, (2) tax employers to bring in needed revenue for the comp system, and (3) put no bill forward that cuts benefits for unemployed workers.”
CWA leader Theo James said he’s glad the mobilization took place.
“This is the first of many, many fights we’re going to have. It’s great to know we’re still in practice!”