Unions geared up for Ohio referendum vote

Unions are feeling confident heading into a crucial vote next Tuesday on an Ohio state referendum dealing with collective bargaining rights.

After Ohio state lawmakers passed legislation in March — known as Senate Bill 5 — that curbed collective bargaining rights for all of the state’s public workers, labor gathered signatures for a voters’ referendum to repeal the bill. The vote next week will be a test of labor’s political strength, much like the Wisconsin state recall elections earlier this year, and has helped motivate a union base in a vital swing state for the 2012 elections.

Chris Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, told The Hill that the ballot initiative, called Issue 2, had done a wonderful job in motivating union voters.

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“For 2012, this already gives the people of Ohio a large mobilization base to work off for the elections due to all of the things that have happened in the state. There are more people on our side on the issues and on the elections than ever before,” Mabe said. “All and all, it has been a wake-up call for the middle class not just here but across the nation.”

Consequently, others in Ohio’s labor movement feel cautiously optimistic that unions will win out once polls close.  Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, said union members have been knocking on doors since last spring and will continue to do so up until Tuesday.

“If we can turn out the vote like I know we can, I'm confident we can repeal Senate Bill 5 and vote no on Issue 2,” Burga said.


Polling in Ohio seems to favor labor at the moment.

An October 25 poll taken by Quinnipiac University has state voters supporting repeal of Senate Bill 5 by 57 to 32 percent. That’s a near doubling of the margin in favor of repeal, compared to a poll taken by Quinnipiac at the end of September.

Nevertheless, union leaders have not begun to celebrate prematurely.

“We all know that polls don't vote,” Burga said.

Worries persist among labor that defeat is still very possible on Issue 2.

Voter confusion was a repeated concern labor officials voiced to The Hill, with many citing “Grannygate.”

Building a Better Ohio, a group that favors Issue 2, excerpted video from an ad run by anti-Issue 2 We Are Ohio that has grandmother Marlene Quinn praising firefighters and urging voters to vote no on Issue 2. In the pro-Issue 2 ad, however, Quinn appears instead to be supporting Issue 2.

“The way citizen referendums work here in Ohio is you have to vote yes to keep a law. It can be kind of confusing,” Burga said. “We're going to do the best we can down the homestretch to eliminate any voter confusion.”

Another worry for the unions is the flood of outside campaign money pouring into the state before Tuesday’s vote. According to press reports, a number of groups have been active in the state with television ads and direct mail pieces, such as Alliance for America’s Future, Liz Cheney’s group, and Citizens United, pushing voters to support Senate Bill 5.

Americans for Prosperity has set up phone banks across the state and has hosted 13 town halls and six tele-town halls since August, according to Rebecca Heimlich, the group’s Ohio state director.

“I think it's going to be close,” Heimlich said about the vote next Tuesday. “It is a question of how quickly we can educate people and we have a few more days to do it.”

Heimlich pushed back at claims of misinformation made by unions against the pro-Issue 2 side. She said labor was wrong to say that if Senate Bill 5 survives, public workers would be laid off.

“Our government at the local level, especially with the schools, is unsustainable financially. It's unsustainable because they're stuck in agreements that they can't get out of,” Heimlich said. “Without Issue 2, we're either going to see mass layoffs or massive tax increases.”

Unions are just as active as AFP in getting out the vote. The International Association of Fire Fighters launched a get-out-the-vote bus tour Saturday that will stop in 13 of Ohio’s cities to encourage voters to head to the polls.

Mark Sanders, president of the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters, said the vote will be tight on Tuesday but like other union leaders, he felt labor will be successful.

“I think the citizens will be there with us because they trust what we are saying about this piece of legislation,” Sanders said.