By Dan Tokaji, the Robert M. Duncan/Jones Day Designated Professor in Law, Ohio State University, Moritz College of Law. Tokaji is also a member of the ACS Board.
On Tuesday, Ohio voters rejected Issue 2, a measure that would have sharply limited the collective bargaining rights of public-sector employees. The outcome of this measure is significant for workers’ rights. But its greatest importance lies in its significance for the balance of political power, not just in Ohio but across the country.
Issue 2 was a ballot referendum asking voters for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote on SB 5, a statute passed by the state legislature and signed by Governor John Kasich. At the start of his administration, Governor Kasich took a very aggressive posture, memorably warning people to “get on the bus, or we’re going to run you over.”
SB 5 became the centerpiece of Governor Kasich’s first year in office. The law was advertised as a way of cutting government expenses and creating a more business-friendly environment for private-sector employers. It was supported by most Republicans and opposed by Democrats in the state legislature.
Without getting too deeply into the details of this long and complex statute, suffice it to say that SB 5/Issue 2 would have significantly weakened public-sector labor unions – including those representing police officers, firefighters, teachers, and many other local and state employees. Not surprisingly, this change engendered fierce opposition from organized labor. Opponents collected enough signatures to put the law to a vote of the people as the state constitution allows.
Unquestionably, the defeat of Issue 2 is a black eye for Governor Kasich. The consequences of Issue 2’s defeat, however, go well beyond Ohio’s borders.
To see why, it’s helpful to consider what would have happened if Issue 2 had succeeded. The measure would have dealt a crippling blow to organized labor, drastically curtailing its political influence. This is especially significant in our post -- Citizens United world, in which there are effectively no limits on corporate campaign expenditures. In this world, the only counterbalancing force to corporate political influence – at least the only one with enough money to make a major impact – is organized labor.
Corporate political spending is the link between Ohio’s vote yesterday and the Occupy Movement, which started on Wall Street and has spread around the country. Americans are already concerned that wealthy interests already wield more than their fair share of political power. Had Issue 2 succeeded, it would have made this problem much worse, eviscerating the main counterweight to corporate campaign spending. Republican and Democratic candidates alike would have become even more dependent on political support from large corporations. Such a result is anathema to a society that’s ostensibly committed to the principle of one person, one vote.
As if that weren’t enough, the defeat of Issue 2 is a big step forward for progressives who were frustrated by last year’s election results. In Ohio, Wisconsin, and other purple states, Republicans swept into power in 2010. Once in power, they were unusually aggressive in advancing their agenda. That agenda included not only limitations on workers’ rights, but also restrictions on voting and gerrymandered legislative districts designed to help. The common thread of all these changes is that they’re designed to help conservatives preserve and expand their political power, by weakening the other side.
The changes championed by Ohio conservatives are an especially striking example. In addition to SB 5, the legislature enacted a bill (HB 194) that makes it more difficult to vote and have one’s vote counted. That statute limited early voting and eliminated the requirement that voters be directed to the correct precinct. These indefensible restrictions on voting rights triggered another referendum, which will appear on the ballot in November 2012.
Most recently, the state legislature adopted a congressional redistricting plan that gives Republicans 75 percent of the seats, despite the fact that the state is split about 50/50 between Democratic and Republican leaning voters. The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that the redistricting plan is subject to a referendum, despite language in the bill designed to evade a vote of the people. Another round of petition-gathering, aimed at putting this partisan gerrymander to a public vote, is now in the works.
Have conservatives gotten too greedy? If Ohio is any indication, the answer is yes. The attempt to limit collective bargaining rights provoked a populist backlash. It’s galvanized progressives, fueling the movement to repeal retrogressive voting changes and gerrymandered districts. If progressives can keep the momentum going, it could have major consequences for the 2012 election, in which Ohio is sure to be pivotal – and where turnout by the base will be critical.
In the end, conservatives’ aggressive posture could wind up backfiring. Gov. Kasich and his allies hoped to run over the opposition with their bus, but instead ran head-on into a freight train. Ohio progressives have fought back and won, providing an example that those in other states would do well to follow.