Ohio Labor Aims to Repeal Anti-Union Bill

Ohio unions need 231,000 signatures to trigger a voter referendum on SB5, which would abolish most public employee collective bargaining. Photo: Jim West

The Republican offensive continues to unfold in Ohio. Senate Bill 5, sweeping away most public employee collective bargaining rights including the right to strike, has been signed.

Governor John Kasich’s two-year budget proposal, which would harshly impact city and county government, continues to wend its way through the legislature.

Ohio labor and allies have turned their focus to repealing SB5. Their task is to collect 231,000 valid signatures by June, which would trigger a voter referendum on the bill in November. In the meantime, SB5 is on hold.


The repeal campaign kicked off April 9 in Columbus, where 15,000 joined a “We Are Ohio” rally. This was the largest turnout of any Ohio protest so far, in a year marked by repeated rallies at the Capitol.

The rally also reflected the movement’s increasing breadth, noted Marianne Steger, AFSCME Council 8 public policy director. “The faith-based community was there. The Hispanic community. LGBT. It’s becoming larger than labor. People are charged up and ready for the next fight.”

A Cleveland teacher of the year and a disabled police officer, shot in the line of duty, invited rally-goers to become petition-gatherers. Steger observed a proud spirit at the action: “Each speaker declared ‘I’m an Ohioan,’ to which the crowd shouted back, ‘We Are Ohio!’” Thousands signed up to circulate the petitions.

The SB5 repeal campaign will cost labor major bucks—$15-$20 million on ads, staff costs, and literature.

Plus, Steger worries, labor may have to put another repeal measure on the ballot in 2012 if Republicans stick anti-collective bargaining language in the budget, too.

Republicans hope to drain unions’ political coffers to weaken them in the 2012 elections. And more anti-labor measures are on the horizon. “Right-to-work” legislation, which allows union-represented employees to avoid paying dues, is under discussion, as is “paycheck deception”—a measure restricting union political spending.


Labor is not the only Republican target. The Ohio House has passed a new voter ID law, one of the country’s most restrictive. The law demands voters present government-issued photo ID with a current address to cast a ballot. An estimated 890,000 voting-age Ohioans could be turned away at the polls—primarily poor people, seniors, people of color, and students. Many observers consider it a Republican attempt to reduce Democratic turnout.

“Voter ID speaks volumes to the black community,” said Harriet Applegate, executive secretary of the Cleveland-based North Shore Federation of Labor. “People in economic distress and who move a lot will be heavily affected.”

Cleveland labor is working closely with the city’s large African-American community, with help from the NAACP and progressive ministers. “The NAACP gets the need for strong unions,” explained Cleveland city councilman Jeff Johnson, who is serving as NAACP representative on the SB5 repeal campaign. “If we lose collective bargaining, it reduces the standard of living for everyone, whether they’re in a union or not.”

Cleveland pastor Tony Minor noted that many who attend the city’s black churches are SEIU and AFSCME members. “A lot of pastors are hearing their cries for action,” he said.

Johnson and Minor both acknowledged that simply repealing SB5 won’t narrow the gamut of economic and social problems facing their communities—whether it’s the governor’s draconian budget cuts, the voter ID bill, or continuing poverty and joblessness. “We need to establish a central organizing table, and not fight individual battles,” Minor said. “We need a message that unifies us.”

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #386, May 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.