The United Auto Workers float during the Labor Day parade. A large turnout was expected because of the SB 5 legislation that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Thousands of unionized workers and their supporters flocked to downtown Toledo to make sure their voices were heard. Groups of laborers from Toledo city employees to steelworkers to electricians marched in a unified throng of red T-shirts along Summit, Adams, and Huron streets, chanting “No on 2” and carrying signs protesting the state government’s attempts to limit public employee union rights.
Several politicians also attended the event, including Ohio Sen. Edna Brown (D., Toledo) as parade marshal, and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo).
“We’re down here definitely to make a statement on Issue 2. That’s our big message to get out today,” said Sandy Coutcher, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 3794, which represents about 500 workers with the Lucas County Board of Developmental Disabilities. “It really isn’t just about unions. It’s about every worker.”
Ohioans will vote Nov. 8 on Issue 2, which is a referendum on the collective bargaining law commonly known as Senate Bill 5. The law prohibits public employee strikes, reduces the subjects for discussion at the bargaining table, requires workers to pay at least 15 percent of their health-care premiums, and prohibits local governments from picking up any of an employee’s share of his pension contributions. The law also eliminates the ability of workplace unions to automatically deduct “fair-share” fees in lieu of dues from the paychecks of employees who refuse to join.
Union officials Monday slammed Senate Bill 5 as an “attack on the middle class” and an attempt to undermine the power of organized labor. Marchers carried signs reading “Stop the war on workers” and “Public servants not public serfs.” Many of the red T-shirts read “We Are One” in large white letters.
“I’ve been in a labor union for a long time and I never dreamed we could see such a bold assault,” said Gary Dunn, former police union president and current president of AFSCME Local 54, which has about 700 Lucas County workers. “It’s about weakening the unions, not protecting the community. It’s just a way of devastating the labor movement.”
Those attending the parade remarked on the expressed solidarity of northwest Ohio’s various unions in denouncing the new law, passed earlier this year by the Republican controlled Ohio General Assembly and signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich. They said the parade seemed bigger and more energetic than in years past.
“This year is very important because the whole concept of workers’ rights to have the worth of their labor represented as a contract negotiation is at stake,” Miss Kaptur said after the parade. “This was a year to stand in unison with them.”
Toledo city councilman D. Michael Collins, one of several councilmen at the event, said the parade outcome shows most people in the Toledo area support collective bargaining rights.
“I think symbolically it demonstrated that Senate Bill 5 has awakened a sleeping giant,” Mr. Collins opined. “I think Lucas County will deliver a sound message to the governor and Mayor Bell that while they support Senate Bill 5, the overwhelming majority of people in Lucas County reject it.”
Conspicuously absent from the parade was Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, who after attending the event for the past two years, did not appear Monday. His spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei said Mr. Bell, a political independent, did not want to attend an event to which he wasn’t invited.
The mayor angered city union leaders last week when he officially endorsed the bill and moved to force a wage freeze and benefit cuts on members of the city’s largest employee union, AFSCME Local 7, despite their opposition. Ms. Sorgenfrei said the mayor was unlikely to back down on either issue.
“We still have to able to balance the budget,” Ms. Sorgenfrei stated. “If by following the appropriate process under the law and sitting down with the unions we have not been able to reach a consensus so far, clearly the current system is not working.”
What’s really at stake, said Rob Nichols, spokesman for Kasich, is indeed local governments. The savings to the state is $100 million annually, but the savings to local governments is estimated to be about one billion dollars, Mr. Nichols said.
“To date, the opponents of Senate Bill 5 have had the state to themselves,” Mr. Nichols said. “We are confident that when taxpayers learn what’s in the bill, that based on common sense and fairness, they will realize this is a tool to give to local governments to help them survive.”
Union leaders said they were not surprised, or disappointed that Mayor Bell did not attend the parade.
“We didn’t expect him here. We don’t need him here really,” Ms. Courcher said. “He’s got our message.”
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett