John Morris walked down the tree-lined streets of Shaker Heights, knocking on doors and buttonholing residents.
An English teacher at the high school, Morris had a simple message to share: "We are dealing with cutbacks like every other citizen," Morris said. "We just want a place at the table."
Get ready, Ohio. Morris, and many others like him, will be coming soon to a door near you.
Thanks to Issue 2, this will not be a sleepy off-year election. On Nov. 8, Ohio voters will decide on the controversial law, championed by Gov. John Kasich and originally passed by the GOP-dominated Legislature as Senate Bill 5, to dramatically restrict the collective bargaining rights of the state's public workers.
Ohio residents will have front-row seats to what will likely prove to be a historic political circus as outside dollars flow in by the millions to bolster campaign coffers on both sides. A saturation blitz of TV ads, door-to-door canvassing and phone calls is already being unleashed on voters.
"I think a lot of people are going to be very surprised about the intensity of this campaign," said John Green, the executive director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "An incredible amount of money is going to be spent on this."
Just like in every presidential election, this debate will likely come down to a street fight between motivated Ohioans.
Ask Jeff Arra, a high school teacher from Avon Lake, who helped gather signatures to force SB5 to a statewide vote. He hates how SB5 supporters villify public workers as the reason for Ohio’s budget troubles.
“We are not this goonish organization that’s causing people to go bankrupt,” he said. “It wasn’t public education, police or fire that caused the financial downturn. To say that there’s some kind of lavish lifestyle from public service, it’s just not true.”
Arra said Avon Lake teachers have accepted pay freezes, increased health-care and pension costs and generally work with management to step up for the good of the community.
“We’re not going to take money that’s not there,” Arra said. “We want the best education we can for our kids. I treat my students like my own kids, and I don’t want them to face a gutted school system.”
Ask Tom Zawistowski and you’ll get a different perspective. Today Zawistowski runs the Portage County Tea Party. Once he was an apolitical person – that is, until he served on an advisory board for an Ohio school district.
“It was clear the whole system was rigged,” he said. “There was no way to manage expenses, because the union contract bound you to do things you didn’t want to do. All the leverage was on the side of the union. Issue 2 is about putting the managers back in charge of their business.”
Breaking the Unions
At its core, SB5 alters collective bargaining by changing what’s open for negotiations. It puts more power in the hands of the managers by restricting what can be bargained for. For example, health care costs can’t be negotiated. Employees will pay at least 15 percent of their premiums.
Rob Nichols, a Kasich spokesman, said the governor champions the bill because it will help make Ohio more competitive and help local governments get costs under control.
“Once Ohioans understand it’s built in common sense, they will see that it’s absolutely necessary if local governments are to lower their costs and keep taxes down,” Nichols said.
Mayor Dennis Clough of Westlake has openly supported SB5, arguing that the law puts much-needed control back in the hands of local elected officials.
Voters choose their mayors and school boards, so those officials – not union lawyers and arbitrators – should have more control over how taxpayers' money is spent, he said.
“This bill doesn’t take away collective bargaining, it just puts in some parameters,” Clough said. “I think the parameters will help resolve issues in a more expeditious fashion.”
But what SB5 proponents see as necessary and common sense, public employees see as a direct attack on the middle class. They say it will lower standards of living – and pave the way for public unions' eventual elimination.
Harriet Applegate, head of the North Shore AFL-CIO, said it will create "chaos" and mark the end of unions' traditional role in Ohio.
“If we lose this battle, we are sitting ducks for extinction, a union in name only,” Applegate said.
There’s some truth in that, said Green, the political scientist from Akron.
“The most important issue for unions is being able to bargain over a full range of topics, and they really believe these restrictions will cause them serious problems,” Green said. “And this strikes at public employees, the strongest part of the labor movement right now, so there’s a lot at stake.”
Union organizers say SB5 would unravel decades of battling for worker rights.
Kenny Yuko, a union organizer for 30 years and now a state representative for some of Cleveland’s East Side suburbs, said it’s all or nothing for working people.
“If this stuff gets taken away, our quality of life dies,” he said.
A Steeper Climb
The anti-SB5 side, has a number of advantages over their opponents in the campaign, Green said: The regular working people, the teachers, police and firemen who populate the union rolls. People like Morris, the Shaker Heights teacher.
Morris isn’t a political operative. He’s the guy who taught your kid English, who lives down the street in your neighborhood.
That’s a powerful symbol, and SB5 foes have hundreds of John Morrises at their disposal across the state.
On the other side is – well, it's difficult to find a public face other than Kasich, who had a 35 percent approval rating in July. Supporters will argue they fight for the taxpayers, but that's a more nebulous connection.
"It isn’t that they can’t make a good case, because they can," Green said. "Connecting taxpayers directly to this issue is much more difficult. The average voter is not going to immediately understand that connection."
The other advantage the SB5 opponents have is that they secured the “no” vote on the ballot.
“If people are in doubt, they take the safe way out and vote no,” Green said. “It’s easier not to change something.”
A Quinnipiac University poll from July showed that 56 percent of those surveyed wanted to kill SB5 while 32 percent want to keep the law in place. There is an obvious partisan split, with the majority of Democrats wanting repeal and Republicans wanting to keep the law in place.
Still, the proponents of SB5 clearly have a chance in this referendum. Polls have shown that majorities favor certain individual provisions of the law, especially asking public employees to kick in more money for their health care and pensions, Green said.
But if you ask them about SB5 itself, or about broader restrictions to collective bargaining, voters become much more hostile to it, Green said.
"It really depends on how you frame the issue," he said.
And framing will be key in the weeks leading to Nov. 8.
Both sides have run TV ads, and campaign offices are opening across the state.
Leading the charge for each side will be newly formed coalitions that most Ohioans haven’t heard of. Supporting SB5 is Building a Better Ohio, a group that Kasich doesn’t run but that he openly supports, Nichols said.
“They are the boots on the ground in the actual campaign,” Nichols said of Building a Better Ohio. “The governor is very supportive of them.”
Both sides are focused on finding people who support their cause and enlisting them to bring others over to their side.
John Ryan, a campaign manager for We Are Ohio, the main union-based group, who once led the Cleveland area AFL-CIO, told a gathering of volunteers that the key to winning the election is getting more people like them out on the streets and talking to voters.
“Our door-to-door work will make all the difference,” Ryan said. "The polls show people are universally opposed to SB5."
Nichols, the governor's spokesman, disagrees with that assessment.
"As Ohioans learn more about it, they will recognize there’s lots of misinformation out there and Senate Bill 5 is a vital tool to keep taxes low," Nichols said. "Voters are savvy. They will separate mindless rhetoric from reality. They will do what they need to do to become informed, which bodes well for preserving Senate Bill 5."