Ohio, Wisconsin Reach for Progressive Era Tools to Fight Modern Robber Barons

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Ohio, Wisconsin Reach for Progressive Era Tools to Fight Modern Robber Barons

On the same day that Gov. Scott Walker's anti-public employee law takes effect in Wisconsin, public workers in Ohio can celebrate a victory in the battle for democracy.

We Are Ohio, the group leading the effort to repeal Ohio Senate Bill 5, the anti-collective bargaining bill, delivered a record number of nearly 1.3 million signatures to the Ohio Secretary of State today, backed by a "Million Signature March" parade of more than 6,000 people, retired fire trucks, motorcycles, a drum line and bagpipes. 

"This is the people's parade," said We Are Ohio spokesperson Melissa Fazekas in a news conference after the parade. "You are truly one in a million."

Ohio's Veto Referendum

Both Ohio and Wisconsin have had union-busting legislation forced on them by Governors John Kasich and Scott Walker in the name of fiscal austerity, and both states saw massive protests in response to the attacks on workers' rights and public services. The electoral methods of recourse, however, differ between the states.

Ohio is one of 21 states that allow for veto referendums. A veto referendum is a unique mechanism that allows a new law to be placed on a ballot for voters to either ratify or reject if enough signatures are collected within the statutory timeframe.

About 231,000 valid signatures are required to put the collective bargaining law on the November ballot as a referendum. The 1,298,301 signatures were delivered in 1,502 boxes carried by a 48-foot semi-truck. The Ohio Secretary of State's office must now sort the signatures by county, count them and distribute them to county boards of elections for validation.

According to the Toledo Blade, "Just the filing of the petitions Wednesday will keep Senate Bill 5 from taking effect on Friday as scheduled. If at least 231,149 of the signatures are determined to be valid, the law will remain on hold until the results of the election are known. If voters reject the law, it will never take effect."

Wisconsin's Recall Elections

In Wisconsin, six Republican state senators face recall elections over their vote to abolish public employees' collective bargaining rights. Three Democratic state senators have also been targeted for recall, in response to their decision to leave the state during the battle that ensued over the controversial legislation. Primary elections for the recalls will take place July 12 for the Republicans and July 19 for the Democrats, with general elections following in August. If the Democrats hold onto their seats and three of the six Republicans are recalled, the state Senate will flip to a Democratic majority, loosening the Republican stronghold on the state.

While papers cannot be filed to recall Walker until January 2012, United Wisconsin, the grassroots organization behind the gubernatorial recall movement in Wisconsin currently lists 189,321 pledges for recall. To prompt a recall election, 540,206 signatures would be required.

"What we saw today in Ohio was a response of millions of people saying 'no' to Gov. Kasich's agenda and standing up for bargaining rights and workers' rights, because we don't have the ability to remove him," said Kris Harsh, spokesperson for Stand Up for Ohio.

Both Mechanisms from the Progressive Era

Ohio does not have a recall provision, thus the referendum drive. But both referendums and recalls are progressive tools that date back to the early 1900s. According to the Ohio Historical Society, "Progressives argued that the referendum made the American political system more democratic." Referendums were approved as an amendment to the Ohio Constitution in 1912, and the Wisconsin Constitution was amended to allow for the recall of elected officials just one year after Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette's death, in 1926.

La Follette fought for progressive ideals -- such as recalls and open primaries -- to empower average people at a time when corporate bosses ruled the political scene. La Follette's fight was against railroad barons and agricultural monopolies, while Ohio battled the Standard Oil Trust.

The overwhelming outpouring of people standing up for their rights and for their communities in Wisconsin and Ohio today indicate that the progressive tools given to Americans by fighters like La Follette are just as relevant and necessary now as they were more than 100 years ago.

Jessica Opoien

Jessica Opoien is an intern with the Center for Media and Democracy and a senior at Iowa State University majoring in journalism and mass communication.

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