Last December, Gov. John Kasich told reporters that passing an anti-union “right-to-work” law is not a high priority for him. Kasich said he has a different agenda for the next two years, including tax cuts and education reform.
What Kasich didn’t say, but what many Democratic and Republican activists believe he meant, is that he has no intention of going after unions before Election Day 2014. Afterward, it’s game on.
Kasich learned a hard a lesson two years ago, when Ohio voters rejected Senate Bill 5, which would have gutted collective bargaining rights of public union workers. Clearly, Kasich and the Republican majority in the state house know that attacking workers is a losing strategy for a re-election campaign.
Ohio Republicans need look no farther than Wisconsin and Michigan — where union-busting legislation suceeded — to feel hopeful that similar attempts will succeed here. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder often said a “right-to-work” law wasn’t a goal of his, but after the legislature rammed it through in a single day late last year, he happily signed it.
Republicans won’t wait forever. They will go after the unions again, with or without a second-term Gov. Kasich. If re-elected, he will surely sign a “right-to-work” bill, which allows workers to opt out of paying union dues, even if they benefit from a union contract in their workplace. The ultimate goal is to weaken, if not eliminate, unions.
Other conservatives aren’t willing to wait. They call themselves Ohioans for Workplace Freedom and champion big-money interests, not workers. They’ve vowed to gather enough petition signatures to put a right-to-work amendment on Ohio’s ballot this November.
Ohio’s organized labor must rally for the next battle, not just for its own sake, but for the greater good. A huge challenge looms, and unions must inspire more than their base to win over voters. They need to get ready now.
The counter-slogan — “Right to Work for Less” — is dead on. These laws are designed to destroy unions, the only groups with the resources to advocate for workers.
“What ‘right to work’ means is that someone can have all the benefits of union organization without paying for it,” says Amy Hanauer, founding executive director of the nonprofit Policy Matters Ohio. “I liken it to being in an exclusive club without paying for membership. Eventually, no one pays and the club can’t afford to deliver its services anymore.”
When unions are weakened, all workers lose. In states that have adopted so-called right-to-work laws, Policy Matters Ohio has found that wages for workers — union and nonunion — dipped by an average of $1,500 per year.
My union roots drive a deep gratitude in me. My father belonged to the Utility Workers Union of America, Local 270. His union wages and benefits, along with low-interest federal student loans, allowed me to be the first in my family to go to college. The rest of my life hinged on that.
For nearly two decades, I was a member of The Newspaper Guild. When I was a columnist at The Plain Dealer, my union card meant I could not be fired for my opinions. For eight years, our oldest daughter was an organizer for the Service Employees International Union; her husband still is. My sister, Toni, is a public school teacher and proud union member.
If you have ever worked outside the home, you, too, have benefited from organized labor. The 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, workplace regulations — none would have happened without unions.
Supporters of right-to-work laws claim they don’t stop employees from collectively bargaining for wages and benefits. This is disingenuous, at best. While the chamber of commerce and other big-money lobbyists champion business interests, union dues provide vital resources for workers’ only advocates.
“It is hard work to be a union,” Hanauer says. “You need the staff to organize. You need the staff to research for bargaining. And you need staff to represent workers in grievances.”
That last role — negotiating with management — fuels a common myth about unions: They exist primarily to fight with employers and impede production.
Longtime Cleveland labor lawyer Todd Smith blames the media for getting it wrong in covering labor disputes.
“You never hear about all the times unions and employers work things out,” he says. “That’s common, but it’s not sexy. Most of the time, negotiations work. When they don’t, we agree to arbitration, accept the results and move on.”
The challenge for unions: communicate this essential truth to nonunion voters predisposed to support right-to-work laws.
Union membership peaked in 1954, when 28 percent of all U.S. workers were unionized. The numbers have declined ever since. Ohio had 604,000 union members in 2012, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — 12.6 percent of our workforce, down from 13.4 percent a year before.
It’s not just declining membership that worries union activists. Winning a battle against a right-to-work law will require unprecedented cooperation among union leaders. Privately, some worry that the behind-the-scenes clashes of egos that plagued the SB 5 campaign could hurt unions in the next fight.
There’s too much at stake to pretend these tensions don’t exist. Most rank and file union members feel a genuine camaraderie with workers from different unions. Their leaders need to share this vision of unity.
“We have to keep our eyes on the prize,” Smith says. “Democracy isn’t easy. It never has been, and it never will be.”
In February, Smith, who is also a musician, performed at the Laborfest at the Cleveland Public Library, which hosted an exhibit of labor and New Deal art. When Smith sang Woody Guthrie’s “Union Maid,” the 75 or so people in the audience, most of us middle-aged or older, joined in:
O you can’t scare me, I’m stickin’ to the union, I’m stickin’ to the union, till the day I die.
I went home and looked up the song in my father’s AFL-CIO songbook, which was in its ninth printing in 1974. I sang that song as a child and years later at a Pete Seeger concert at the old Front Row Theater.
It’s been a long time since I joined fellow union members in song. Small thing, maybe, and surely the fault for that is mine. If I’m waiting for someone else to start singing, where’s the leadership in that?
It sure was powerful to sing in that auditorium of aging activists and remember what it felt like when everyone around you cared about the same people. When everyone around you believed.