The William G. Mather

Take a walk along the Lake Erie shore in downtown Cleveland, between the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Cleveland Browns Stadium, and you will find the William G. Mather docked at the quay, serenely awaiting visitors.

The William G. Mather, which is part of the Great Lakes Science Center, is a floating museum that allows visitors to experience what it was like to be aboard a working Great Lakes freighter.  Sharply painted black, red, and white, the Mather is a huge vessel that towers above the water and is more than two football fields long.  Standing on the dock next to the Mather is like standing next to a vast and oppressive black steel wall.

This was a ship that was made to carry tons and tons of cargo, and its scale dwarfs the size of puny humans.  It was built in 1925 and sailed the waters of the Great Lakes for decades, part of the system of inland water commerce that spurred much of America’s growth.  Enormous ships like the Mather transported iron ore, coal, and other natural resources across the lakes to bustling cities like Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland, where those resources would be smelted in great factories, burned in sprawling furnaces, or otherwise used to power the engines of American industry.

The fleet of lake freighters spawned its own culture — if you ever meet someone who worked on a freighter, be sure to buy them a beer and ask them to tell you about their experiences and the characters they met, and then get ready for a few very enjoyable hours — and provided well-paying, eye-opening summer jobs for generations of young men from the Midwest.  The freighters had their heyday in the mid-1900s, when America was booming.  Now the number of those freighters is sorely diminished, and the freighter culture is sadly diminished as well.

Given the current state of lake freighters, it is perhaps fitting that the most famous of the freighters is known not for its service, but for its sinking.  Of course, that would be the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Issue 2 Onslaught And The Firefighters’ Brigade

In Ohio, you can’t watch a football game without seeing commercials, pro and con, on Issue 2.  The ad onslaught, funded by well-heeled groups on both sides of the issue, has begun in earnest, and the election is still six weeks away.

State Issue 2 is a public referendum on various public employee issues.  A “yes” vote would uphold SB 5, legislation passed by the Ohio General Assembly earlier this year that limits certain collective bargaining rights of public employees, requires public employees to contribute at least 15 percent of their health insurance premiums and 10 percent of pension contributions, and make a number of additional changes.  A “no” vote on Issue 2 would overturn that law.

The big question right now is whether the flood of commercials will advance meaningful public knowledge about Issue 2 and its impact.  Would an affirmation of SB 5 cripple public employee rights and put public safety at risk, as opponents claim?  Or, would the approval of SB 5 give cash-strapped state and local governments the flexibility to save money while maintaining public services, as its proponents contend?

So far, the ads I’ve seen suggest that Issue 2 is all about firefighters and the staff members who work for Ohio’s 33 state senators.  Of course, that is not the case.  Firefighters are attractive subjects of TV commercials, but they represent a small fraction of the public employees who would be affected by SB 5.  According to an article earlier this year in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, there are nearly 650,000 state and local government employees in Ohio; in Cuyahoga County alone there are more than 76,000 local government employees.  In contrast, Cleveland, the largest local government in Cuyahoga County, employs 900 firefighters.

I’d like to see commercials that get beyond firefighters and Ohio Senate staffers and get to the heart of the issues on Issue 2.  Under our current scheme, how do public employees really fare versus those working in the private sector?  How much money could state and local governments reasonably expect to save if SB 5 is affirmed?  What abuses, if any, should cause us to change the current approach toward public employees?  If voters are to be informed about the merits of Issue 2, those are the kinds of questions that need to be answered.