The Battle for Ohio's Middle Class

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tags: Republican Party, Ohio, middle class

John T. McNay is Associate Professor of History at the University of Cincinnati's Raymond Walters College. He is the author of Acheson and Empire: The British Accent in American Foreign Policy (Missouri, 2001) and most recently Collective Bargaining and the Battle of Ohio: The Defeat of Senate Bill 5 and the Struggle to Defend the Middle Class.

Ohio Statehouse. Image via Wiki Commons.

As the Republican-generated shutdown unfolded recently, there were many of us in Ohio who recognized these tactics. We had seen this kind of political extremism before in 2011 when the state legislature forced a union-busting bill on the state. The story is recounted in my new book, Collective Bargaining and the Battle of Ohio: The Defeat of Senate Bill 5 and the Struggle to Defend the Middle Class.

In 2011, in the wake of the 2010 election where the Republicans seized control of both Ohio legislative houses, the governor’s office and other statewide positions, the GOP sought to take advantage of a budget deficit they themselves had generated. Inspired in large part by the Tea Party, the Republicans aimed to cripple the labor movement through the passage of Senate Bill 5, a sweeping attack on public unions, despite the lack of any evidence that it would be beneficial to the state, and they were determined to do this in the face of enormous statewide resistance.

There are about 350,000 public union members in Ohio and about the same number in the private sector. Fortunately, Ohioans have the right to repeal legislation through referendum. The people of Ohio did just that -- crushing Senate Bill 5 by a 62-38 percent margin in November of 2011 -- two years ago this November -- leaving no doubt that most Ohioans do not share the GOP’s extremist ideology about labor unions. More people voted against Senate Bill 5 than voted for Gov. John Kasich in 2010.

As a historian of diplomacy, I was quite struck by the absolute determination of the Republican majority to slam through this radical legislation in the face of outraged opposition without any attempt to compromise or even talk to their perceived opponents. In my historical work on American foreign relations, I’ve found that government officials usually took very seriously the heavy responsibilities they carried and sought to do the best thing for the stakeholders involved and for the governments they represented. But, in this case, it was starkly obvious that the Republican majority, fired by extremism, were bent on a policy of imposing an unconditional surrender on the unions whatever the human cost.

The budget shortfall had its roots in 2005 when the Republican-controlled legislature approved a 21-percent cut to the income tax that was phased in over the next six years. The tax cuts were a generous windfall to the wealthiest Ohioans and eliminated about $2 billion a year from the state budget so that by 2011 a roughly $6 billion deficit had been generated. There is an obvious parallel in what supply-side economics and particularly the Bush tax cuts have done to the federal government -- rewarding the wealthy for being wealthy and punishing the rest while generating huge deficits.

As I recount in my new book, the Republicans have adopted a tactic to create a crisis because they believe that it is possible to force the public into choices during a crisis that ordinarily would not be possible. These manufactured crises, the government shutdown or the Ohio budget deficit, provide opportunities for the radical wing of the GOP to impose their extremist ideology on the public. The argument outlined here is made in detail in my book. My first-hand experience in Ohio has come from my being president in 2011 of the University of Cincinnati chapter of the AAUP, the oldest and largest faculty union in Ohio, and I’m currently president of the Ohio Conference, AAUP. In addition to my personal experience, I discovered in working on the book that many scholars shared my curiosity about the roots of this extremism in the Republican Party and recently fine scholarly studies of the phenomena have been published. My argument is a synthesis of my personal experience and the findings of these scholarly works. Especially useful have been Geoffrey Kabaservice's Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Thomas E. Mann. and Norman J. Ornstein's It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism (New York: Basic Books, 2012); and Kim Phillips-Fein's Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan(New York: Norton, 2009).

This ideology that almost destroyed the labor movement in Ohio and now has a stranglehold on the federal government has its roots in an obscure group of Austrian economists whose world view was best expressed in The Road to Serfdom published in 1944 by Friedrich von Hayek. It is an ideology involving hatred of government that once was not only not Republican but not even American.

In the face of the rise of the Nazis and World War II, Hayek posited that it was government involvement in the economy that had brought disaster to Europe. Hayek argued that capitalism represented true freedom and that any government regulation of or advances into the economic sphere were a threat to that freedom. The badly-flawed book contains ill-considered arguments and contradictions (and lacks an accurate historical context) but is undoubtedly the touchstone of the current right-wing ideology. The reason Hayek becomes so important to understanding the current extremism is the fact that many wealthy industrialists and corporate executives in the wake of the Great Depression found in this explanation a justification for their practices. They were not greedy plutocrats bent on exploiting workers whatever the cost and simply out for themselves. No, according to Hayek, they were involved in spreading freedom and liberty.

More importantly, Hayek also provided a justification for this small, wealthy, and determined group to launch a campaign combating the New Deal and the role of government in society. This Hayek-inspired ideology first grew through the Mont Pelerin Society which planted the seeds for the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and other right-wing think tanks that have proliferated and made an industry out of spreading Hayek’s beliefs. Milton Friedman, for example, attended the first meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society and spent a career disseminating Hayekian concepts. The expansion of this ideology from a fringe group to the majority within the Republican Party occurred gradually over the years and its ascendancy can be seen in Mitt Romney’s oft-repeated slogan, “America runs on Freedom.”

In the 1950s, Hayekian thought thrived in the corporate world through the work of General Electric’s right wing ideologue, executive Lemuel Boulware, whose anti-union tactics spread out through industry. An important step occurred in the transformation of “Operation Dixie,” the GOP effort in the 1950s to boost Republican numbers in the South. After President Eisenhower ordered federal troops to Little Rock in 1957, all the work the Republicans had done appealing to moderates in the South seemed lost. The result was that Operation Dixie began instead to make blatant racial appeals to the segregationists. After making a good start in converting the South, Barry Goldwater was the first GOP presidential candidate to clearly espouse the radical ideology of the Austrian economists and to tie it to defense of segregation against federal government intrusion.

At the 1964 Republican convention, Nelson Rockefeller represented the Republican moderates and vigorously attacked the extremists who were seizing control of the party. “During this year I have crisscrossed this nation,” Rockefeller told the convention, “fighting … to keep the Republican party the party of all the people ... and warning of the extremist threat, its danger to the party, and danger to the nation …These extremists feed on fear, hate and terror, [they have] no program for America and the Republican Party... [they] operate from dark shadows of secrecy. It is essential that this convention repudiate here and now any doctrinaire, militant minority whether Communist, Ku Klux Klan or Birchers." The Republicans went ahead, nonetheless, and nominated Goldwater. His more well-known response to Rockefeller was, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”

While Goldwater was too extreme to be elected in 1964, the Democrats handed the GOP a gift as civil rights legislation was rightly imposed on the South during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. The resulting change of the South from a Democratic to Republican bastion rooted in resistance to civil rights helped to complete Operation Dixie and made it possible for the extremist ideas rooted in the Austrian economists to ride to power on the back of American racial politics.

Despite using the Southern Strategy of appealing to racial fears to get elected, Richard Nixon was no captive of the ideology. The Republicans would have to wait for the election of Ronald Reagan to have a president who openly espoused the Hayek-inspired ideology. Whether he understood the foreign roots of his worldview is uncertain but his contract work as a spokesman for GE certainly introduced him to the principles and transformed him from union leader to union buster. Reagan had become an ideological clone of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who carried Hayek’s book with her to meetings and was fond of quoting it. Thatcherism and Reaganomics thus shared a common root as Thatcher broke the coal unions and Reagan crushed the air traffic controllers.

Since that time, the extremists in the Republican Party have gained firm control but the GOP has had increasing difficulty winning national elections because the party’s governing ideology has moved so far from the mainstream. This has led to an intense focus on the states and thus to the Battle of Ohio in 2011. While it is true that both parties have engaged in gerrymandering, the Democrats in Ohio have not been so efficient nor as ruthless at it as the Republicans. The result has been locking in Republican majorities in the state house and in the national House of Representatives that thwart real democracy. In a state now trending Democratic in national elections, and where the 2012 Congressional vote totals were close to 50-50, the Ohio Congressional delegation consists of 12 GOP seats and 4 Democrats.

As Senate Bill 5 moved through the legislature, becoming more radical rather than less as it passed through GOP-dominated committees, thousands of Ohioans appeared in huge rallies at the statehouse in Columbus asking that the bill be killed. But the ideologically-driven process continued. In response, the unions began to create a new organization of historic importance. We Are Ohio came together to preserve collective bargaining rights in Ohio. Made up of labor unions, faith groups, and progressive organizations and committed to a non-partisan stance, the coalition galvanized a huge proportion of Ohioans into a powerful political force -- laborers, professors, auto workers, Teamsters, janitors, secretaries, nurses, carpenters, fire fighters, and police officers all working together

Once the bill was passed over massive protests and signed in a celebratory ceremony by Gov. Kasich, We Are Ohio began the drive to put the bill on the ballot to repeal. Unlike Wisconsin which has the right to recall politicians, Ohioans instead have the right to repeal legislation. Just to get the referendum on the ballot was an enormous project with over 231,000 signatures needed. A huge campaign was mounted. At least 10,000 petition gatherers, most of them union members spread out across the state eventually getting 1.3 million signatures. Faculty members in faculty unions across the state were deeply involved in the campaign. Once we had guaranteed that it would be on the ballot, the real struggle began and we joined with the other unions in knocking on doors, phone banking, and talking to our friends and relatives.

Special language had been inserted in the bill during its movement through the legislature targeting faculty that would have made it very difficult for our unions to survive. If a professor did any of the service that is common to our profession -- curriculum committees, hiring committees, tenure and promotion committees -- we would be deemed managers and ineligible for union membership. Our union colleagues asked, “Why do they hate you so much?” We were as puzzled as they and can only assume that academic freedom and shared governance, the AAUP’s primary objectives, are seen as too threatening in some conservative circles.

And our struggle went beyond just the effort to protect collective bargaining rights. House Bill 194, which was dubbed the “voter suppression act,” dramatically limited access to the polls. Our coalition members launched yet another referendum drive and had the signatures to put HB 194 on the ballot. Then, in a stunning move, the Republicans repealed the bill themselves rather than face another electoral defeat. And then there was the “charter” university initiative, which was in reality a backdoor privatization plan for Ohio’s public colleges and universities. Loud and persistent resistance by faculty and students and our union allies concerned about the education of their children have managed to push back talk about the charter university concept.

There is no question that Ohioans won an historic victory in November 2011 when Senate Bill 5 was defeated by a big 62-38 percent margin. Probably the most important lesson to be drawn from that success is that if the people get a chance to vote about the value of collective bargaining rights, they will defend them. After all, the bankruptcy of this Hayekian worldview is easy to see. Despite the dire warnings about the New Deal, American prosperity has been extraordinary since the Second World War. The great social democracies of Europe have not become dictatorships. Freedom and democracy has grown in large part because of, not despite, government involvement.

And yet the political extremism that has been at work in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and elsewhere where the middle class -- created by the union movement - has been under attack, showed itself on the national stage during the shutdown. We will likely have a resumption of this crisis strategy over the debt ceiling in the near future. A perceptive analyst of this extremist movement has been Kevin Phillips, whose book, The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath(1990) first lifted the curtain on the destructive impact of Hayek-inspired supply-side economics. More recently in Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich (2002), Phillips has intoned a warning about American society: “The imbalance of wealth and democracy in the United States is unsustainable,” Phillips points out. “Market theology and unelected leadership have been displacing politics and elections. Either democracy must be renewed, with politics brought back to life, or wealth is likely to cement a new and less democratic regime -- plutocracy by some other name.”

The 2011 victory in Ohio, examined in my new book, can serve as a blue print for charting a better and more just and sustainable course for the future.

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