The Lessons of Ohio


"Remember Ohio." Those two words should carry new meaning to politicians in Congress and state houses who think they can respond to unemployment, budget crises and voter anger with faux solutions that serve up red meat to their right-wing base.

With their now-famous rejection of a state law limiting public employees' right to bargain collectively, Ohio voters sent this emphatic reminder to Republicans (and some Democrats as well): Cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires, scapegoating working Americans and their unions and downsizing Social Security and Medicare may get you a standing ovation from the 1%, but the voters who decide elections will not be fooled — and you may just get more than you bargained for.

Four lessons to remember from Ohio:

1. 2010 didn't mean what you think.

Challengers in the 2010 mid-term elections benefited from a formidable current for change, but the change voters wanted was a solution to the economy and the jobs crisis–not political maneuvers and overreach. Keep in mind, too, that voter turnout in mid-term elections is unrepresentatively low: Fewer votes were cast to elect John Kasich governor in 2010 than were cast last week to defeat SB5, the anti-worker law pushed forward by the governor and the Republican majority in the state legislature.

Across the board, voters in the Buckeye state said the anti-worker law "was not the kind of change Ohio was looking for in 2010," according to a post-election survey conducted by Hart Research for the AFL-CIO.

Voters, in fact, are more leery than ever of partisan games. Ohio voters said they perceived the law as a political maneuver by Gov. Kasich and state Republicans to weaken labor unions (53%) rather than a genuine effort to make state government more efficient (33%).

Just as Ohioans voted down the anti-worker law, voters in other states rejected right-wing overreach, defeating a Maine law prohibiting a same-day voter registration law that had been in effect for almost 40 years and recalling the state senate president in Arizona, who had championed the state's anti-immigrant law.

2. In 2011 and 2012, fronting for the 1% is a nonstarter.

Remember, 2011 is not 2010, and politics in 2012 will evolve even more. Give credit to the Occupy Wall Street movement (and historic inequality) for redefining the political narrative.

Fifty-six percent of Ohio voters in the Hart survey agreed that Kasich and his allies "are putting the interests of big corporations ahead of average working people."

These attitudes are widely shared by the swing voters who supported President Obama in 2008 but elected Republican governors and U.S. representatives in 2010–and will decide the presidential and congressional elections in 2012. They're working Americans with modest incomes, moderate views and little patience for policies that aren't fair and don't work.

More than 26 percent of 2010 Kasich voters, in fact, were part of the overall 61 percent majority who rejected the limits on collective bargaining.

This sea change was strongest among voters in the middle of the economic and ideological spectrums. Yes, public employees, union members, Democrats and liberals voted overwhelmingly against the controversial law. But they were joined by definitive majorities of voters from households with no public employee, workers without union representation and independents, as well as 30 percent of Republicans and 36 percent of conservatives.

3. The myth of the pampered public employee has been busted.

The demonization of public employees is neither a strategy nor a solution and the heartland Americans who voted last week to restore rights for public employees understood that. Public employees didn't cause the economic crisis and they're not the enemy. They're our neighbors and our friends, mainstays of the working middle class, and the services they provide–from police and fire protection to education, health care and environmental protection–are essential to the economy and our quality of life.

And yes, taking away the right to bargain collectively in the public sector, which maintains standards at a time when the private sector is running away from them, will lower living standards for everybody.

Voters in the Hart poll said the anti-worker law would have a mainly negative rather than positive impact on the state's middle class. The attack on public employees would be more harmful than helpful to wages and benefits for all Ohio workers, they said (by a 20 point margin), to public safety (by 21 points), to public education (by 14 points) and to jobs and the economy (by 12 points).

4. Working people joined together will win.

Firefighters, teachers and other public employees were joined by plumbers and pilots and all kinds of private-sector employees to win. Worker to worker, neighbor to neighbor, the message spread, and what began as an attempt to divide workers flopped famously. In the end, working people's solidarity was the message.

Lest there be any doubt, voters in Ohio showed that when fundamental rights and livelihoods are targeted, working people will not only defend themselves, but come back stronger. Conversely, when politicians listen to and champion working people, they can win.

The 2011 elections are over, but their lessons are lasting. Rather than pander to economic elites and an ideological fringe, public officials and office-seekers who want to be winners this time next year should support public policies for the 99 percent–policies that create jobs, invest in America's future, safeguard Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and promote fiscal sanity at the federal and state levels by requiring millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share.

At a time of near-double-digit unemployment and growing concerns about economic insecurity and inequality, the overwhelming majority of Americans are seeking solutions, not scapegoats.

It's time for politicians to listen.  

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