Ohioans reject local and statewide right-to-work legislation
Unionists and residents have come out strongly against a proposed right-to-work ordinance being considered by officials in West Chester Township, Ohio. | Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (AFSCME)

WEST CHESTER TWP., Ohio – This past month Ohio’s unionists and allies took a stand, again rejecting out-of-hand a misguided attempt by Republicans to force so-called “right-to-work” legislation on working folks here.

This time it was in West Chester Township, a small bedroom community just north of Cincinnati. After a ruling by the conservative Ninth Circuit of U.S. Federal Court in Kentucky that local communities have the legal ability to pass right-to-work legislation, some local trustees in West Chester Township, Ohio, decided to do just that.

Trustees George Lang and Mark Welch introduced a local right-to-work bill, believing it would go through without comment. They were surprised, however, at the reaction of local residents.

Opponents denounced the proposal as “right to work for less.” Residents bombarded proponents of the bill. One woman at the trustees’ meeting spoke loudly opposed the measure, saying, “Your website asks for ‘comments’. Well, I don’t like it, and I want to be heard!”

Local residents, unionists, and supporters, had their own opinions and mobilized to tell trustees what “right-to-work” actually does, who it helps, hurts, and why they say it is not in the interests of people in West Chester.

“West Chester needs to be focused on other things than killing workers and stomping down their right to have a voice in their workplace,” said Neil Douglas, President of AFSCME Local 1943.

Introducing the anti-labor bill, Trustee George Lang stated, “Other states around Ohio have right-to-work, we have to step up our game.”

After the legislation was introduced, however, a local coalition representing unionists, residents, businesses, retirees and communities of faith decided to attend the next special meeting on the issue. Nearly 150 frustrated, angry, and very vocal people packed the meeting room.

The crowd was loud and unanimously opposed to the anti-labor proposal. Chants of “Let us speak” and “We are the workers!” rattled the walls.

Lang, the bill’s sponsor, left the meeting, demanding that it be adjourned. However, not all trustees supported the bill. Another, Lee Wong, kept the meeting open so that attendees could voice their opinions. He sided with the residents in opposing right-to-work.

“Township trustees should be focused on more important things like police, fire, roads, and sanitation. This is a state or national issue. It would in no way help regular people, residents of West Chester, to pass this,” he said.

After being surprised, and swamped, by the upsurge of opposition to the local anti-labor legislation, the trustees unanimously agreed to put right-to-work on hold until the Supreme Court hears a case on the issue.

“This is not just an issue for union folks,” according to United Steelworkers staff rep Ron “Pup” Wardrop. “Right-to-work would hurt the entire community. People that came out here to voice their opinions are residents of West Chester. They stood up and spoke out. The Republicans say they’re for local rights, but they actually are just for rights of rich people and against what people know is good for them.”

However, Ohio Republicans, smelling blood in the water, immediately introduced a state “right-to-work” bill. Extreme conservative house member John Becker (R-Clermont) introduced H 53, stating, “The question is not whether Ohio becomes a ‘right-to-work’ state, but when.”

State legislators, even with strong Republican majorities, have been previously weary of passing right-to-work legislation in Ohio, especially since 2011 when they passed SB 5, ending public workers’ bargaining rights. That legislation was overturned by a massive coalition that placed and passed a referendum on the ballot in the state.

“Ohioans have spoken on this issue, clearly and unequivocally stating that they reject legislative attacks on rights of working families,” stated Ohio AFL-CIO President Tim Burga. “Workers in right-to-work states make $535 less a month than those represented by unions. This legislation would result in more fatalities of workers in Ohio. Businesses, local governments will be harmed, losing considerable income, while the wealthy get even wealthier, if this becomes law.”

After SB 5 was passed in 2011 by a GOP majority, a huge union-led alliance called We Are Ohio, representing unions, faith groups, the legal community, retirees, and others mobilized in opposition to the legislation. After weeks of huge demonstrations, marches, rallies, and public commentary, SB 5 was voted down by a 3-1 majority on a referendum placed on the ballot by the coalition. Polls prior to the mass mobilization showed that the bill enjoyed public support by approximately the same margin by which it was later defeated.

That uprising against SB 5 has terrified GOP legislators. Scott Oelslager (R-N. Canton) recently told the press at a recent AP sponsored forum, “The people of Ohio have spoken very clearly, stating what they feel on this issue. Nobody wants another SB 5.”

The GOP majority had also just attempted in December to gut Ohio’s unemployment compensation system, citing underfunding.

“This is just another phony crisis created by the Republican majority in the first place,” according to Ohio AFL-CIO Political Director Jason Perlman. “They create the underfunding by giving tax breaks to the wealthy, to businesses, instead of paying up the compensation fund. Now they want to balance the system by cutting eligibility payments that unemployed workers in our state can receive. That is politically untenable and morally bankrupt.”

That case, like others, was settled with the GOP withdrawing their attack on workers after unionists, mobilized by the AFL-CIO, sent delegations to all their representatives demanding they back away from the GOP anti-worker legislation.

After those meetings, hundreds returned to the statehouse, packing a conference room where a hearing on the legislation was scheduled. After waiting for hours, with Republicans a no-show, it was announced they had backed off that bill also.

A new unemployment compensation payment system is now being negotiated between legislators and organized labor, with AFL-CIO President Burga representing one group.

The new legislation is a real danger, coming as it does at a time when there is a right-wing Trump administration in Washington and GOP majorities in Ohio. However, Ohio unions have a history of grassroots popular mobilizations. This latest attack can be expected to be greeted similarly, very possibly with similar results.


CONTRIBUTOR

Bruce Bostick
Bruce Bostick

Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and labor activist in Ohio.

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