At Today’s Sparse “Occupy Columbus” Protest

Today the “Occupy Wall Street” group held a protest in downtown Columbus at noon today.  The protest was mentioned on NPR this morning, so I walked over to check it out over the noon hour.  It was, to say the least, underwhelming.

I would estimate that about 20 protesters were there — and with the mention of the protest on NPR and the many college students and political types in town, I was expecting a much larger number.  The skimpy turnout was only a tiny fraction of the huge crowds that showed up for the Senate Bill 5 protests at the Statehouse earlier this year.  Then, the protesters filled pretty much every square foot of the Statehouse lawn and surrounding walkways.  Today’s little band, in contrast, was huddled on the sidewalk in front of the McKinley statute facing High Street.  Their numbers were so small that you could easily walk past them on the sidewalk.

The protesters were a motley group, with no apparent theme.  Among the signs I saw were one supporting prisoner’s rights, another opposing Issue 2, one simply reading “Glass-Steagall,” and another handwritten sign purporting to be a quote from Andrew Jackson.  There also was a sign opposing corporate greed, one that was anti-yuppie, one that advocated taxing the rich and ending “their war,” and another that blamed Goldman Sachs.  There were no chants, or drums, or much of anything in the way of noise. If it weren’t for the fact that two police cruisers and uniformed officers were present, you wouldn’t have even known a protest was going on.

According to the news media, the “Occupy Wall Street” protests are growing and spreading to other cities.  In Columbus, however, not so much.

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The Issue 2 Gap Narrows

The Issue 2 ad barrage continues, and polling indicates the onslaught may be moving public opinion.  The question for Issue 2’s backers and opponents is:  how far, and how fast?

According to the latest Quinnepiac University poll, 51 percent of Ohioans say they would vote against Issue 2, and thereby repeal legislation that will affect collective bargaining and other work conditions for public employees.  That’s still a majority, but it reflects a significant shift in opinion since the prior Quinnepiac poll on that topic, which was taken in July.  In two months, the gap between those who favor repeal and those who oppose it has closed from 24 percent to 13 percent.

Although the news reports on the polling data are focusing on the erosion in the support for repeal, I’d say the odds still favor repeal.  Ads on Issue 2 have been running for weeks now and the people who were easily persuaded have already been persuaded.  In short, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked — and unlike a presidential election, there won’t be highly publicized debates or the possibility of gaffes that might have a discernible effect on voter preferences on Issue 2.  Unless there is some blockbuster ad campaign ready to be rolled out between now and the election, those who seek to uphold the public employee collective bargaining law probably will have to bank on voter turnout working in their favor.  Right now, the law seems likely to survive only if the fact of an off-year election, no statewide races, and a lingering recession operate to depress the turnout of Democratic voters.

 

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.

Senate Bill 5 Moves On

By a one-vote margin, the Ohio Senate today passed Senate Bill 5, the controversial legislation to modify the collective bargaining rights of public employees.  The vote came as pro-union demonstrators again flooded the Ohio Statehouse and its grounds to try to stir up opposition to the measure.  The union protesters manage to get six Republicans to break ranks with leadership and vote against the bill — but they needed seven defections to kill the bill.  The measure now moves to the Ohio House, where it is expected to pass.  Governor John Kasich supports the bill and would sign it if it makes it to his desk.

I respect the public employees who came to Columbus to exercise their free speech rights and oppose Senate Bill 5, but I believe it is a necessary measure.  Ohio is facing a huge budget deficit, and many Ohio municipalities also are facing budget shortfalls.  A significant part of the state and local governmental budgets are devoted to public employees compensation and benefits.  Senate Bill 5 seems like a reasonable step to deal with those costs.  Public employees could still bargain about wages, hours, and working conditions, but not health care, pension benefits, or sick time.  Public employees also would not be able to strike.  The move should allow Ohio state and local governmental entities to bring public employee health care and pension benefit contributions in line with the prevailing approaches in the private sector, and the savings produced as a result will help to make up the budget shortfalls.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves, however.  Senate Bill 5 is not going to fix Ohio’s budget gap by itself.  Our legislators need to roll up their sleeve and continue to look carefully, and skeptically, at state programs, state departments, and state agencies and decide whether they truly are needed, and if so at what funding level.  What services are critical, and which provide non-essential services that we simply cannot afford any longer?  Public employees in Ohio should not be the only group that bears the brunt of necessary budget cuts.

 

At The Ohio Statehouse Union Rally

A view from the Statehouse steps onto the northwest lawn

Today, after lunch, Richard and I walked over to the Ohio Statehouse to check out the big union rally against Senate Bill 5, the bill that would affect the ability of public employees to engage in collective bargaining rights.  I had been hearing the hubbub outside my office window and was eager to see the turnout.

We got to the Statehouse about 12:45 and entered at the Third Street entrance.  There were some union folks out on Third Street and milling around the entrance.  We saw people wearing public employee union t-shirts, jackets and buttons in the map room and in the Atrium above.  Rows of chairs had been set up in the Atrium, facing each other across a center aisle, and as we walked through a large, leather-lunged woman was leading the crowd in “We want respect” chants.  I would estimate that several hundred people were in the Atrium, and they were in good spirits.

Signs at today's Statehouse rally

We crossed through the Statehouse Rotunda and exited out the Broad Street entrance, which was where the real action was.  A temporary stage had been erected and two singers with guitars were singing union songs.  The crowd covered about two-thirds of the west lawn and sidewalk, with people sitting on the benches and standing on parts of the McKinley memorial.  There were lots of union t-shirts, hats, and some very creative signs criticizing Governor Kasich.  Some of the signs seemed to be generated by outside forces.  For example, we saw several signs referring to Governor Kasich and Wisconsin Governor Walker as “Koch-heads” or “Koch addicts,” and I’m not sure most union workers would focus on the Koch brothers as sign material without some kind of prompting.

The people at the rally were pleasant and friendly, and the whole gathering had an upbeat open-air feel.  The Ohio Highway Patrol had officers at points in the Statehouse, and they were professional and friendly as always.  We later heard an estimate that 8,500 people were at the rally.  I’m not sure it was that large when we were there, but there definitely were thousands of people in attendance.  We did not see any counter-protest.

Regardless of your politics, if you are downtown restauranteur you have to like these protests.  We saw lots of protestors crowding into the Tip Top, Dunkin Donuts, and other restaurants in the core downtown Columbus area.