Will Ohio follow the lead of Indiana and become a “Right to Work” state?  Numerous articles and political consultants are pontificating just that after Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ successful campaign and recently enacted law made it the 24th state – and the first of the so-called “Rust Belt” states to abandon strongly held labor principles.

Detractors in Ohio simply say this is Issue 2/Senate Bill 5 all over again.  My experience as a lobbyist and political consultant for thirty+ years urges me to believe otherwise and any comparisons are simply naive.  The opponents have a real tiger by the tail here.

Let me explain my rationale:  First, Issue 2 prohibited collective bargaining, while “Right to Work” allows workers to choose whether or not to join a union, and one can not lose their job if they don’t join.  The mere use of the words PROHIBIT vs. CHOICE should concern the opponents.  That’s why poll after poll, whether its Ohioans for Workplace Freedom or Quinnipiac University, show a wide majority of Ohioans’ support the “Right to Work” amendment.  Second, is that the poll numbers generated by Quinnipiac University on ISSUE 2 and “Right to Work” are complete opposites.  In July 2011, REPEAL was supported by a margin of 56-35 (Quinnipac Poll July 2011) while this February, Ohioans SUPPORTED “Right to Work by 54-40 (Quinnipac Poll February 2012) .  So, those simple word choices really do make a huge difference in the minds of Ohioans.

From the first day of my employment with the Ohio Senate in 1980, the 1958 Right to Work ballot issue and the fact that it killed the Republican Party were pounded into my head.  I never challenged that conclusion because I was too naive and because I enjoyed working with labor (having been a former steelworker and growing up in Cleveland).

Two months ago, I came across an eye-opening piece of research which thoroughly explores the events of 1958.  The senior thesis written by OSU Honor Student Michael B. Hissam,  entitled C. William O’Neill and the 1958 Right-to-Work Amendment, is a must read for those of us interested in such policy.  The author enumerates many causes to the sound defeat of the Right to Work amendment: the popular Republican Governor O’Neil was bed-ridden and had mismanaged his administration; the economy had turned south and tax increases were on the horizon; O’Neil was fighting with the Republican Party; and finally, the business community ran the Right to Work campaign.  Essentially, the electorate was mad as hell at the incumbents and tossed them and the amendment out onto the street.  Problem was, most incumbents were Republican.  One could make the spurious relationship between the two, but if the Right to Work amendment was such a watershed issue, why did Republicans recapture their majority status in 1960?  You would be surprised what great gems are in the book Ohio Politics 2nd edition.

According to the AFL-CIO website, in 2011 there were 4.7 million workers in Ohio. Total union employees were 647,000; meaning 13.4% of the entire workforce belongs to a union.  When I researched the numbers for Ohio Union membership dating back to 1958, I found a range as low as 24% to a high of 31%.   So, for purposes of my theory, let’s work with the low number of 24%.  From 1958 to 2011, union membership waned from 24% to 13.4%, which equals a 44% reduction – while Ohio’s total population increased by 22% from 9.4 Million to 11.5 million.  Even more telling is that in 1958, nearly 920,000 union members were affected by the Right to Work amendment.  Today the amendment would affect only 647,00 union members.

According to the 2011 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national union membership accounts for 11.8% or 14.8 million workers.  Of that, 7.6 million workers were from the public sector. That means 37% of ALL public employees belong to a union.  At the local government level, that number jumps to 43.2%.  Now the real kick in the pants is that the remaining 7.2 million workers in the private sector represents only 6.9% of ALL private employment.  This all amounts to public sector unions being five times larger than the private sector.

At the moment, organized labor is at a disadvantage and should shudder at the prospect of this issue going to the ballot or being enacted into law by the General Assembly.  And who says words aren’t important?

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