Three Great Labor Victories
By Jerry Gordon
Many times, employers have decided that the U.S. labor movement is too weak, too divided and too passive to defend itself and its members from the blows which the bosses seek to deliver. When the smoke clears and the battle is over, it is the workers and their unions which have often come out on top, demonstrating how much strength and power the working class has, once it decides to use its muscle and mobilize its forces.
This article recounts three great labor victories, two of which were won right here in Ohio. While the events below span nearly half a century, they have common features which point the way to further major victories in the future.
1958: The Fight to Defeat the “Right-to-Work” Amendment to the Ohio Constitution
Don’t underestimate the workers! That was the major lesson of the 1958 Ohio election for the industrialists, the politicians, and even some who held positions of leadership in the trade union movement.
Faced with a clear-cut class issue — a proposal to write the union busting “right-to-work” amendment into the state constitution — Ohio workers closed ranks, organized and led a massive political crusade that defeated the measure by a margin of almost a million votes.
Nobody but the workers could claim credit for the victory. The Democratic Party “landslide” that year was an incidental effect, not the cause of the defeat of the so-called right-to-work. Final election returns from the state’s 12,960 polling places showed the vote on the Right-to-Work Amendment (Issue No. 2): NO — 2,007,291; YES — 1,080,266, with a margin of victory for labor of 927,025.
By contrast, DiSalle, the Democratic candidate for governor, won by a vote of 1,887,926 over O’Neill, the Republican, who garnered 1,427,469, for a margin of 460,457. For U.S. Senator, Young, the Democrat, got 1,669,022 votes, while Bricker, the Republican candidate, received 1,504,197 votes, for a margin of only 164,825. In other words, the margin for the defeat of “Right-to-Work” was more than double the margin of victory for DiSalle and six times the margin of victory for Young. In short, opposing right-to-work enjoyed far greater support than did either of the politicians.
Anthony J. DiSantis, Labor Editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the paper that spearheaded the drive of the business interests, wrote in the November 6, 1958 issue, “Ohio voters rejected the ‘right-to-work’ proposal by the biggest margin ever recorded on an issue on the ballot in the state’s history.”
The victorious campaign to defeat right-to-work was conducted under the clear-cut leadership of labor — united in its own independent political arm, United Organized Labor of Ohio (UOLO) and completely separate from the Democratic and Republican Parties. The workers did not depend on “friends” in these parties in the fight to defend their union conditions.
Thousands of rank-and-file workers participated actively in the campaign. They distributed literature, organized debates, voted contributions to UOLO from union funds, and took up voluntary collections. They went to the unemployed at the Unemployment Compensation Offices and offset the attempts of the bosses to pit jobless workers against the unions. They went to the farmers and explained how agricultural income is dependent on the standard of living won by organized labor. They went to African American workers and pointed out that right-to-work was being pushed by the same forces opposing fair employment practices legislation.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer in its November 5, 1958 editorial reasserted its confidence that “compulsory membership in labor unions will be outlawed in Ohio.” But they admitted that “it is evident from yesterday’s balloting that if this issue is to succeed the initiative for it will have to come from the workers themselves, rather than from business organizations which have been hostile to labor unions in the past.”
The Cleveland News, at that time the city’s evening paper, carried an editorial which noted that “It’s clear that when a purely agricultural county votes down the work reform amendment, the small town and farm citizens felt less scared about labor and unions than about the high-powered campaign for the amendment.”
On November 9, a panel of three trade unionists discussed their views on the November elections at a meeting of the Cleveland Forum for Political Education. Reporting on their remarks the Plain Dealer noted, “United Organized Labor of Ohio, created to fight the ‘right-to-work’ law, could grow into a labor party, it was suggested yesterday.…”
1997: The Fight to Defeat Issue 2 and Defend Workers’ Compensation
When the legislature passed the 1997 “reform” of Ohio’s state workplace injury insurance plan, the labor movement turned from statehouse lobbying to working class voting to abort the regressive law before it could be put into effect.
As soon as Ohio governor George Voinovich signed Senate Bill 45 in April of that year, the UAW and the AFL-CIO formed the Committee to Stop Corporate Attacks on Injured Workers, co-chaired by Ohio AFL-CIO President Bill Burga and UAW Region 2 Director Warren Davis. The committee launched a campaign to challenge the action taken by the legislature through a referendum. Joining them were the Building and Construction Trades, Teamsters, and independent unions.
On July 21, 415,000 signatures were presented to the Secretary of State and implementation of the law was suspended pending the outcome of the November 4 vote. The unions’ drive for a “NO” vote on Issue 2 was intended to mobilize their members and friends to reach every possible voter with the facts of how the new law would hurt injured workers — union and non-union alike — and their families. This was the first time since 1939 that Ohioans were able to go to the polls to vote no in a referendum on a piece of anti-worker corporate takeaway legislation that the Ohio General Assembly had passed.
The drive gathered momentum. Organizations calling for a “NO” vote on Issue 2 included the NAACP, Ohioans helping Injured Workers, Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, Ohio Council of Senior Citizens, Consumers League of Ohio, Labor Party, Professional Firefighters, Fraternal Order of Police, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, A. Phillip Randolph Institute, Women Speak Out for Peace and Justice, Women for Racial and Economic Equality, and Hard Hatted Women.
It became clear that the bosses and the politicians had made a serious miscalculation. They had not expected labor and its allies to mount an all-out campaign like the one in 1958 that defeated the right-to work amendment.
In a letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer published on August 15, Burga and Davis underscored just what was involved: “Tightening eligibility means denying disability benefits to people who cannot work; denying coverage to workers who contract occupational cancers and other occupational diseases, or who suffer from carpal tunnel or other repetitive-motion injuries; cutting benefits to those with permanent partial disabilities.” With 350,000 Ohio workers injured on the job annually, it was clear just how much was at stake in the outcome of this fight. It was also clear that a lot was also at stake for the employers, who stood to profit by a $200 million a year tax cut if Issue 2 received a “yes” vote.
So labor took on the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants and all of the big business crowd. But this was not just a battle for the rights of organized workers. It involved the entire working class as well as other sectors of the population, which had to be convinced that gutting the workers’ compensation system was also against their interests, in addition to being morally wrong.
The campaign went forward with a fury. Both sides raised millions of dollars, with the corporations outspending labor by probably 7-1. (The Plain Dealer claimed it was only 3–1.) The united labor coalition distributed 240,000 yard signs saying “Vote No on Issue 2!” Attractive leaflets by the hundreds of thousands were printed and circulated. Direct mail, town meetings, videotapes, phone banks, postings on campuses and church bulletin boards, house-to-house visits in working class neighborhoods, community meetings, research, media work, stories from injured workers proving how unjust the proposed changes were, statements of support from the politicians, and, most important of all, frequent rallies and demonstrations.
On November 4, 1997, the Ohio electorate made its decision. The vote was 1,711,701 against Issue 2 to 1,286,188 in favor — a 57% to 43% victory for labor and a crushing defeat for the bankers and corporations who thought they had labor on the run.
Explaining the outcome of the vote, Warren Davis said, “Ohio workers understood this was a takeaway bill launched by multinational corporations against injured workers.” The UAW reported “THEY HAD THE MONEY, WE HAD THE PEOPLE: Ohio Labor Stops Corporate assault on Injured Workers.” (Solidarity, November, 1997)
2001: Freedom for the Charleston 5
On January 20, 2000 longshore workers in Charleston, South Carolina were peacefully picketing to protest the decision of a Danish shipping company, the Nordana Line, to have non-union workers replace union workers in unloading the company’s cargo ship. Suddenly, the picketing workers were attacked by 600 police in riot gear, and five union members were subsequently indicted on “inciting to riot” charges. They faced five years in prison if convicted. South Carolina’s attorney general, Charles Condon, said the Charleston 5, as they came to be called, needed “jail, jail, and more jail.” Even before trial they were placed under house arrest, a condition they were forced to endure for twenty months.
A labor solidarity campaign, the likes of which we have not seen for many years, was quickly launched, both in the U.S. and throughout the world. Rallies, marches, and mass meetings were held to bring the facts to workers and the population as a whole. This became a crucial fight for labor’s rights to picket and demonstrate. It was also a critical civil rights struggle — four of the five Charleston 5 were African American and the main local union involved (ILA Local 1422) was over 90% Black. Victory in defense of the Charleston 5 was also essential to advance one of labor’s most important goals: organizing the South.
On August 22, 2001 over two hundred people packed SEIU Local 47’s hall in Cleveland to express their solidarity with the Charleston 5. The meeting was co-sponsored by the Cleveland AFL-CIO, UAW Region 2, and several other labor groups. The Labor Party spearheaded the organizing of the event. The meeting was addressed by Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422, who clearly laid out the facts of the case and exposed the frame-up. Thousands of dollars were collected for the defense of these workers at the meeting and thousands more in its aftermath.
Because of the strength and power of the support for the Charleston 5 — which included plans to shut down ports on the West Coast and in other countries to coincide with the scheduled opening day of the trial — the state of South Carolina threw in the sponge in November of last year and the workers won their freedom.
Taking the Offensive!
The great labor victories described above were defensive struggles: defense against right-to- work, defense against gutting the workers compensation system, and defense against the frame-up of fellow workers. Labor has no alternative but to fight back against these kinds of corporate attacks. The experiences of 1958, 1997 and 2001 prove conclusively that we can win, provided there is labor unity, mobilization of the rank-and-file, reaching out to our allies, and a determination to pull out all the stops to ensure that we prevail.
All struggles need not be defensive, however. It is high time that labor flexes its muscle and goes on the offensive, breaking new ground in the fight to improve the wages, hours, benefits, job security and quality of life of its own members and the working class as a whole.
What better place to begin than by leading the fight to win publicly funded universal health care in Ohio and the entire country!