Out-of-State Corporate Money Floods Ohio Battle Over Anti-Collective Bargaining Bill
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About 60 people gathered at the AFL-CIO office in downtown Columbus, Ohio, to rally and volunteer their time on a sunny Friday evening in early October. They came from a variety of backgrounds: white and black, urban and rural, young and old. Armed with a phone bank and canvassing clipboards, they participated in a campaign to rally Ohio voters to repeal legislation known as Senate Bill 5. If passed, the law would limit collective bargaining rights on issues like staffing levels for Ohio's 360,000 public workers and require some public workers to pay more in pension and health care costs. The volunteers, dressed in T-shirts and jeans, are labor's foot soldiers in a political battle attracting national attention and political spending. It is a bitter clash of class, ideology and political tactics, pitting the public sector against the private sector, and Ohio's labor movement against a web of Republican front groups that refuse to disclose their campaign finances.
Senate Bill 5 proponents claim the bill will save tax dollars by allowing municipal leaders to make cuts without negotiating with unions and will put public worker's health care and pension costs in line with private-sector workers. However, these aggressive "reforms" targeting the bargaining rights and pocketbooks of teachers, police and firemen don't sit well with Ohio's hearty and traditionally centrist middle class. After Ohio's GOP-controlled legislature passed Senate Bill 5 by a single vote in March, 10,000 volunteers collected an unprecedented 1.3 million signatures to put the law up for a voter's referendum, as allowed by Ohio law. Voters will go to the polls on November 8 and vote "Yes" on state ballot Issue 2 to keep the law, or "No" to cast a veto vote.
The stakes are high for both sides and experts estimate the cost of the Issue 2 campaign could run from $33 million to $40 million, rivaling the cost of the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. If Ohio's public workers lose collective bargaining rights, then unions could lose political influence and momentum in a key swing state. But for Republican Gov. John Kasich, who defeated a Democratic incumbent in the 2010 GOP landslide and quickly championed Senate Bill 5, an embarrassing veto from voters would cast a shadow on the rest of his term and an ambitious agenda focused on tax cuts and privatizing prisons and economic development. A repeal would also disappoint Kasich's legion of out-of-state, big business supporters that spent millions helping elect him.
Kasich is playing defense and the repeal campaign has been ahead in the polls for months. Unions like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the AFC-CIO smell blood. Labor has thousands of volunteers on the ground in Ohio, but its fundraising has extended beyond the grassroots. Faced with a Republican opposition raising unlimited - and so far unreported - electioneering funds to convince voters to keep Senate Bill 5 on the books, national union offices contributed a combined $3.7 million to We Are Ohio, labor's major vehicle campaigning for a repeal, which raised nearly $7 million by July. The national AFL-CIO alone contributed $1.5 million.
We Are Ohio and its union backers are disclosing their campaign finances, but Building a Better Ohio, the GOP-linked group spearheading the pro-Senate Bill 5 campaign and running television ads across the state, set up a nonprofit corporation to raise funds and avoid revealing its contributors and finances. The Republican Governors Association (RGA) and out-of-state conservative groups like The Alliance for America's Future are also defending Senate Bill 5 without disclosure.
A Truthout investigation into the political machine defending Kasich and Senate Bill 5, however, reveals how private interests can silently support the controversial legislation through groups like the RGA that funnel corporate cash into state campaigns to promote a broader agenda focused on weakening public-sector unions and privatizing state services.