By Tom Blumer | For Ohio Watchdog
In Columbus on Saturday, a Michigan union member and a leader of that state’s leading free-market think tank said grass-roots activists can persuade voters to add a right-to-work amendment to Ohio’s constitution in 2014.
Terry Bowman is a Ford Motor Co. employee, a member of United Auto Workers Local 898 in Ypsilanti and the founder of Union Conservatives. He told a meeting of the Ohio Liberty Coalition that a well-organized and properly framed campaign can overcome organized labor’s intense opposition, as well as indifference from the state political establishment.
Vinny Vernuccio, director of Labor Policy for The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said framing the argument as being about “giving freedom” and not about workers’ collective bargaining rights, which would not be disturbed by the “Ohio Workplace Freedom Amendment,” is a key to success. Bowman reinforced that argument, asserting that “right-to-work is about freedom specifically.”
To be successful, Ohioans for Workplace Freedom, the outfit leading the petition drive to place the amendment on the November 2014 ballot, must first gather 386,000 valid signatures and submit them to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted. Columbus TV station NBC4 reported Saturday that OWF “has gathered a little less than 100,000 signatures. It needs 386,000 valid signatures … but organizers hope to gather around 500,000.”
Assuming it can do so, the group faces barriers far more formidable than those seen in neighboring Indiana and Michigan, both of which became right-to-work states.
Indiana and Michigan enacted right-to-work solely through legislation. But it’s not clear voters in either state would have approved of their legislators’ actions after aggressive and arguably deceptive opposition campaigns, such as one in Ohio that turned back the potpourri of cost-cutting measures and collective bargaining reforms known as SB5 in 2011.
Unlike in Indiana and Michigan, Ohio’s union leaders and their national supporters won’t be caught by surprise. Unions have already placed menacing billboards on busy Buckeye State interstates and have set up an opposition website. One billboard, sponsored by the UAW, has the words “Ohio Workplace Freedom Act” with “Poison” warnings to the left and right, accompanied by a message that it “poisons workers.” Another otherwise message-free sign on I-75 in Cincinnati substitutes hammer-and-sickle symbols.
In explaining organized labor’s stated justification for the communist symbolism, Bowman said the rights of Ohio workers would be comparable to the rights of workers in China, a communist country.
Despite the billboards, Ohio’s unions haven’t over played their hand, as did Michigan’s unions when they placed Proposal 2 on the November 2012 ballot. In the words of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, the measure would have allowed “collectively bargained labor contracts to undo all previously enacted restrictions on the right to organize and engage in collective bargaining,” and would have forbidden “the enactment of future legislation that would affect those rights.” Even though Michigan ranks seventh-highest in the percentage of its workforce represented by unions, and despite the fact President Obama handily defeated native son Mitt Romney to take Michigan in the presidential election, voters there roundly rejected Proposal 2 by 15 points.
The fact that such a measure even got onto the ballot and got more than a 40 percent approval motivated Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, previously neutral toward right-to-work, to change his mind. Fewer than 45 days after the general election, the state’s Republican-led legislature passed, and Snyder signed, a right-to-work law. Bowman told the Saturday audience that it finally took effect March 28.
The GOP establishment would probably argue that Ohio’s economy is in better shape than its two right-to-work neighbors, and that there is little compelling evidence right-to-work has given immediate boosts to either state.
While it is indeed true that Indiana and Michigan, at 8.3 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively, each had higher seasonally adjusted unemployment rates than Ohio’s 7.0 percent in May, at least both states have seen a bit of overall labor force growth since December 2010. During that period, Ohio’s labor force has contracted by more than 73,000, and only Metro Columbus has seen meaningful growth.
Additionally, Ohio’s performance margin in job growth is narrowing. Indiana and Michigan have both seen higher payroll growth as a percentage of their workforce during the past 12 months than has Ohio. The case of right-to-work proponents will improve if Ohio’s two neighbors continue to add jobs at a higher rate during the next 16 months, especially if there are specific improvements traceable to right-to-work. Proof might be hard to come by. Vernuccio told the audience Saturday that before the March 28 effective date, many Michigan unions renegotiated existing contracts to ensure they won’t expire, and that their workers won’t be able to gain their full legal rights, until many years down the road.
Finally, there’s the argument that the OWFA’s presence on the ballot might increase union and Democratic turnout in crucial 2014 statewide, congressional, and legislative elections to the detriment of Republican and conservative candidates. Proponents believe the “freedom” argument for right-to-work will ensure heavy Republican and conservative turnout, and that the result will replicate the favorable outcome of the Ohio Healthcare Freedom Act in 2011 and not that year’s SB5 disaster.
Bowman and Vernuccio believe proponents are right. Whether that’s true remains to be seen.