The decisive referendum vote to repeal the bill that would limit collective bargaining by public sector unions has changed the political landscape in Ohio. Tuesday’s vote on Senate Bill 5 could and should be a harbinger for the 2012 presidential election. By mounting a direct assault on public sector workers and the unions who represent them, Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio may have done more to help Barack Obama win re-election than anything Obama’s political team is likely to do over the next 12 months.
With Ohio’s continuing high unemployment rate (9.1%!, just like the rest of the U.S), it had seemed unlikely that President Obama could win Ohio, and without Ohio, he’d have difficulty getting re-elected. The same factors make re-election a challenge for Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democratic and one of the most pro-labor members of the Senate. But Kasich, the Republicans in the Ohio legislature and outside conservative financers and think tanks like the Buckeye Institute, may have done Obama and Brown a big favor.
Karl Rove described Senate Bill 5 as a much “more extensive reform” to public sector unions than was enacted in Wisconsin, in part because the Ohio version included firefighters and police officers. While the protests in Columbus were smaller and received less national attention than those in Madison, unions and community groups in Ohio organized a ballot initiative with 10,000 volunteers circulating petitions in all 88 counties. Over 1.3 million Ohioans — more than five times the number required to put the initiative on the ballot — signed the petitions.
Despite a large influx of money from conservative organizations like Citizens United, Freedom Works, and Restoring America, Ohio voters repealed Senate Bill 5 by an overwhelming 22 point margin — 39% yes, 61% no (a no vote was pro-union). Democrats and independents voted overwhelmingly against the measure, and, if pre-election polls are correct, 30% of Ohio Republicans also voted to reject Senate Bill 5.
This should be good news for Obama. While Ohio is notorious for swinging back and forth between supporting Republicans and Democrats, its 18 electoral votes are especially important for Republican candidates. It’s almost impossible for a Republican to win the presidential election without Ohio, and that means winning significant support among union household voters.
According to CNN exit polls from the last few elections, union household voters remain a strong presence in Ohio, even after more than three decades of de-industrialization. Twenty-eight percent of Ohio voters come from union households, compared with 23 percent nationally. In 2008, they underperformed for Obama, who won 56 percent of their votes in Ohio versus 59 percent from union households across the country. No similar data exists for the 2010 midterm election, but many labor leaders admit that Kasich beat the Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, in part because voters from community groups and union households either voted Republican or stayed home (essentially giving half a vote to Kasich).
If union households in Ohio lost their enthusiasm for Democratic candidates in recent years, Kasich’s actions, together with the national Republicans’ just-say-no politics and kill-Medicare initiatives (like the Paul Ryan budget), have made the Democrats look a lot better than they did in 2010.
It all comes down to math. In 2008, 2,933,388 Ohioans voted (or 51.5%) for Obama, 258,897 more than McCain won. If union households maintain their proportion of the electorate, and if just 1 percent more of them vote for Democrats, they can add 15,700 votes to the Democratic vote and subtract the same number from the Republicans – a swing of more than 31,000 votes. If Ohio’s union household voters increase their support for Democrats by 3 percent – that is, if they match the national average for union household voters – they would generate 47,100 additional votes for Obama, a swing of 94,200 votes. That alone could give the president Ohio’s electoral votes.
But because of Senate Bill 5, we might reasonably expect an even larger shift.A recent Quinnipiac poll suggests that the anger generated by the anti-union bill and the organizing fostered by the effort to overturn it has 70 percent of union household voters planning to support Obama and the Democrats in 2012. That translates into an increase of 219,829 votes for Obama, a swing of almost 440,000 votes. Put differently, a mobilized Ohio labor movement with 742,000 members, including many teachers, police officers, and firefighters who have often voted Republican, will be more likely to vote for Democrats in 2012.
This gives Obama the opportunity to score a big victory in Ohio, but that won’t happen solely on the basis of Senate Bill 5. The president must offer a positive economic vision and a program for economic change. The American Jobs Act – even if it must be pushed through piecemeal — is a good start, as are the president’s recent actions on mortgages and student loans.
Such positions will also help Senator Brown’s chances of re-election, but in 2012, in Ohio at least, the usual pattern of members of Congress benefiting from presidential coattails could be reversed. Brown’s solid support for organized labor, community groups and those who have been most hurt by the continuing economic crisis — positions that resonate with the millions of Ohio voters who overturned Senate Bill 5 — may help Obama more than anything Obama has done will help Brown.
None of this is guaranteed, of course. In order for the battle over Senate Bill 5 to influence the 2012 election, those who have organized so effectively to defend unions must continue to work together. Unions will have to keep educating members and reach out to those outside of the labor movement. They will also have to work closely with community and neighborhood groups like the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, which played a pivotal role in community organizing around Senate Bill 5.
None of that will be easy. Competing interests within and between organized labor and community organizations make the coalition very fragile. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. is relatively weak in Ohio, and some tensions exist between public and private sector unions. Meanwhile, Ohio Republicans are threatening to put parts of Senate Bill 5 through in a series of smaller bills next year. Without solidarity across labor organizations, the coalition that fought so well against one big bill could fracture. It may be that other issues won’t have the unifying effect of Senate Bill 5. After all, the same voters who overturned that bill approved a constitutional amendment barring the implementation of the individual insurance mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act.
But if the organizers of the campaign against Senate Bill 5 can hold together and if the Obama campaign can tap into the anger and solidarity of that fight, Tuesday’s vote could turn out to be the turning point in the 2012 election.
John Russo is a professor of labor studies and co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.