On November 8, 2011, the voters of Ohio rejected Senate Bill 5 by a 61% to 39% margin. At issue was a partisan law that would have eliminated collective bargaining rights for 350,000 state employees.
When the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) called for people to come to Ohio and support the repeal campaign, I signed up along with my wife, Raisa, and our three-month-old son, Leander. We spent the final two weeks before election day going door to door knocking and talking with voters in Cleveland and its suburbs.
All day, every day, we knocked on doors – more than 1,200 in all – with Leander riding snug in a baby carrier on either mom or dad. It’s no exaggeration to say that 99% of people we met were supporters who promised, often vehemently, to “Vote ‘No’ on Issue 2.”
On our first day in Cleveland, we heard a Saturday morning speech from AFT President Randi Weingarten at the union hall of Laborers Local 310. Then we headed out to Brooklyn, Ohio – yes, Brooklyn – with a targeted list of names and addresses. Before I could climb the porch steps of one house, a woman leaned out the screen door and yelled, “Save you the trouble! I’m voting ‘No.’ I’m a teacher! Cute baby!”
I turned back to the sidewalk to find my wife, Raisa, who reported that the woman in the house across the street had a fireman nephew and wanted us to get her a yard sign. Then we each circled the “1” on our sheets to note strong supporters and moved on to the next houses on our lists.
This strong support we met reflected both the well-organized campaign that was up and running for months before we set foot in Ohio, and the stage of the campaign when we arrived. In those last two weeks, our job was not to persuade the undecided, but to turn out supporters who had already been identified. So we knew that the doors we knocked on would very likely be opened by friends.
Some people were supporters, but not friendly. For example, one man in Willoughby, Ohio, answered his door and listened patiently to my pitch. I handed him a leaflet featuring a heroic-looking fire fighter in uniform with the headline, “Duty Calls.”
His response: “I’m voting ‘No’ because I support the fire fighters and the police, but I don’t support the teachers.”
Our instructions were to avoid confrontations and this man was already a supporter in terms of how he intended to vote. So I reluctantly left without engaging in further discussion about teachers and marked him down as a “1” on my list. At the end of the block I reported this conversation to Raisa, a PhD candidate and aspiring professor of French literature.
“Which house?” she demanded. “I want to go ask him why he doesn’t support the people who basically raised him and his kids.” I declined to identify the house and together we went on to the next one.
After sunset on election day, I was in Lakewood, another suburb, trying to turn out a few last votes. At my final door a man answered and, seeing the “No on 2” sticker on my lapel, immediately asked, “What kind of car do you drive?”
Confused, I stammered, “Uh, I don’t actually own a car because I live in New York City. But right now I’m driving a Chevy, um, Cobalt. No! I’m wrong. It’s a Malibu.” I pointed to my rental, parked a few houses down the street.
He was satisfied. “OK then. I already voted ‘No.’” He turned out to be a well-informed General Motors retiree and UAW member. We talked about how the current assault on public workers is a sequel to the long trend of political attacks on private-sector unions, from the Taft-Hartley Act to the PATCO strike to the recent case of NLRB v. Boeing.
When the votes were counted, more people across Ohio had voted to repeal SB 5 than originally voted to elect John Kasich, the anti-union governor who signed the bill into law. The landslide was the culmination of a campaign that saw a diverse coalition of unions invest more than $30 million and thousands upon thousands of volunteer hours.
It was an important victory, but very much a defensive one. Workers in Ohio gained no new rights or benefits as a result. For example, Ohio remains the only state that grants bargaining rights to full-time, but not part-time, faculty at its public universities. As I learned in my canvassing, some of those who voted “No on 2” are still susceptible to other kinds of anti-union appeals.
But we won, and we won big. And in a year that began with a wave of aggressive right-wing assaults on public workers, the Ohio landslide may mark a point when the tide began to turn. Unions’ big margin of victory echoed far beyond Ohio – and the campaign to recall Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker is already running ahead of schedule.