Toledo's labor unions donned the mantle of civil-rights martyr Martin Luther King, Jr., for a rally Monday aimed at mobilizing middle-class Ohio voters against Ohio's tough new collective-bargaining law.
In two shifts, nearly 600 union leaders and union members rallied at the United Auto Workers Local 14 hall on Jackman Road in West Toledo to start building enthusiasm for a referendum drive to repeal Senate Bill 5 as well as to punish politicians who vote against the interests of organized labor.
State Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) said the Republicans who enacted Senate Bill 5 "want to take away our jobs and throw us out on the streets."
She got a raucous "No," response when she asked, "Are we going to let them do this?"
"Senate Bill 5 shows an uninhibited and open contempt for the middle class in Ohio," Ms. Fedor said. She said the bill is "designed to destroy public-employee unions under the guise of helping the economy."
The GOP-backed law signed last week by Gov. John Kasich restricts the bargaining rights of some 350,000 public employees in Ohio, abolishes the rights to strike and to binding arbitration, limits the issues that can be collectively bargained, and mandates merit pay for teachers.
It also requires firefighters, police officers, and teachers to pay at least 15 percent of their health insurance premiums. Employees would not be required to pay dues to a union if they refuse union membership.
Titled "We Are One," the rally was part of a national "day of action" with 1,000 events held across the country and in 20 Ohio cities.
In promoting the rally, the Ohio AFL-CIO noted Mr. King's support of 1,300 striking sanitation workers in Memphis who were "being denied the fundamental right of collective bargaining" at the time of his assassination on April 4, 1968.
"For us to use that as a rallying point to bring all people and all organizations together, I think that was a wise decision," said WilliAnn Moore of Toledo, northwest Ohio coordinator for the state NAACP and a participant in Monday's afternoon rally.
During a late afternoon rally, union leader Ken Lortz yelled out a "shame on you" that was directed at the governor, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, and state Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills).
Mr. Lortz, regional director for the UAW in Ohio, described what he termed a "reckless mission" in Columbus to strip away rights for a better life.
Gary Caughhorn, a corrections officer from West Toledo who is employed by the Toledo Correctional Institution, was among those in the crowd booing what he said was an attack on the middle class across the state.
"The worst part about Senate Bill 5 is not being able to bargain for our contracts and instead we are having it forced down our throats," he said last night.
Opponents of Senate Bill 5 must file more than 231,000 signatures by July 1 to get the repeal question on the Nov. 8 ballot. Ms. Fedor said getting the required signatures will be easy. But she predicted Republicans will get behind a conservative ballot issue to get their supporters to the polls.
A conservative ballot initiative is in the works.
Ohio Liberty Council, a Tea Party organization, has been circulating petitions since last spring to put a referendum on the ballot to amend the Ohio Constitution to exempt Ohio from the requirements of the national health-care reform act. Liberty Council President Chris Littleton said the drive has collected about 300,000 signatures and aims to get at least 150,000 more.
"We've been working on this for a long time. One had absolutely nothing to do with the other," Mr. Littleton said. He agreed that, in theory at least, the turnout in support of the proposed health-care amendment would help those trying to stop the repeal of Senate Bill 5.
Ohio Republican Chairman Kevin DeWine would not comment on whether the GOP would get behind a referendum to motivate the law's supporters.
Call for education
"I think there is a lot of education that needs to go on with Senate Bill 5," Mr. DeWine said. "There needs to be a campaign waged to clear up the misinformation, the half-truths, and lies that are coming out of the mouths of the labor bosses."
He said that "having people motivated by the repeal of Obamacare coming to the polls is a good thing."
Supporters of the new law contend Ohio's 1983 collective bargaining law has led to costly contracts over the years that state and local governments can't afford. Opponents see Senate Bill 5 as an overreach and a way to weaken pro-Democrat unions in Ohio.
‘We vote against them'
"We've got to get rid of these politicians who take on the working people," said George Tucker, executive secretary of the AFL-CIO for northwest Ohio and chairman of the United Labor Council of Toledo. "No more free passes. They vote against us; we vote against them. They woke up a giant," Mr. Tucker said to a crowd of about 250 people.
Mr. Tucker said there were three labor strikes the first year he went to work for the city of Toledo, in 1966, at a time when public employee strikes were illegal in Ohio.
He said the problem of strikes was largely cured by the 1983 law legalizing collective bargaining in Ohio, most of which has been overridden by Senate Bill 5.
"There were more strikes before the law than after the law," Mr. Tucker said.
He singled out those Toledo City Council members who in 2010 supported so-called "exigent circumstances," a series of ordinances that forced cuts in collective-bargaining agreements with city employees to eliminate a deficit in the city budget. He said Mayor Bell came from a union household but has abandoned the policies that he said made it possible for him to be successful in the city fire department.
Mayor Bell was not available for a comment, but spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei said the mayor experienced a year-long layoff as a newly hired union firefighter.
"He knows what it's like to not know where a paycheck is coming from. He has said all along he would rather keep municipal workers employed than lay them off and correspondingly cut services to taxpayers, because Toledo is made up of working-class, taxpaying citizens, and he has to be responsible to all of them," Ms. Sorgenfrei said.
As to political threats, she said Mr. Bell is not concerned about his re-election in 2013.
"Twenty-thirteen is a long way off. Mike Bell has said all along he does not govern with the goal of re-election in mind. He governs with the goal of straightening up some of the problems we have in the city and having a better way of life for all of the 287,000 people who live here," Ms. Sorgenfrei said.
Praise for unions
Among the rally speakers was Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez, who extolled her upbringing in a union household. She said to blame the state's economic problems on unions is wrong.
"I'm here to let people know I'm against Senate Bill 5. There's a better approach to solving our economy than pitting Ohioans against each other," Ms. Lopez said.
Electrician Tom Enright, 34, of Walbridge brought his daughters Brigid, 7, and Mary, 5, to the rally.
"It's important for them to be involved and learn about unionism and current events," said Mr. Enright, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 8. He said he believes the repeal effort will succeed.
"I think we're going to get enough signatures to put it on the ballot. We'll get enough people in November to vote it down," Mr. Enright said.
Darlene Blakely, a Sylvania Southview High School English teacher, said it's time for her to become more politically active.
"I totally believe this is an attack on workers," said Ms. Blakely, 60. "This is a human-rights issue." She said members of her teachers' union face a likely 10 to 15 percent reduction in their income because of benefits and wage cuts that have happened or have been threatened.
In Michigan, Bedford Public Schools teachers and retirees braved the morning rain to carry signs outside the district's seven school buildings and hand out information about the funding cuts that Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed for Michigan schools.
"They aren't funding the schools equitably to begin with, but then they want to make a one-size-fits-all cut that is totally lacking in all common sense and business sense, which they profess to have," said Colleen Jan, president of the Bedford Education Association, which organized the informational pickets before school.
Superintendent Ted Magrum said the administration is equally concerned about the governor's budget proposal, which includes a $470-per-pupil reduction in funding.
"What the governor is offering now would be devastating to us," he said. "We're both on the same page as far as trying to get fair funding for schools."
Staff writers Ignazio Messina and Jennifer Feehan contributed to this report.
Contract Tom Troy at: email@example.com or 419-724-6058.