Reform or Revolution in Ohio: A Reflection on 2011


False Dichotomies in Ohio Politics

In the weeks leading up to the November 2011 election, ads for and against Ohio Issue 2 aired on TV. One shows Republican Governor John Kasich standing at a fork in the road, telling voters they have a choice to make, just like the one he said they had to make in an ad shot in the same location a year ago while he was running for office. In this Frostian dilemma, Ohio voters can continue down his path, and follow as he promises recovery; or go the other way. Jobs or no jobs, those are the options. The ad illustrates the false choice that citizens are given every year when they go to vote in Ohio.

What Kasich should be saying is that he has created the illusion of two choices, two choices that are not that far apart, just like the roads in the background of the ads which only slightly diverge. While the allegory of the roads might have helped Kasich defeat Democrat Ted Strickland and might aid him as he continues to push austerity onto Ohio, the image actually serves both major parties, who create a similar self-serving charade every election season for Ohioans.

When Ted Strickland, treated as a “Governor in Exile” by the newly agitated Ohio progressives, was in office, some of the same measures were imposed on unions. Though teachers, nurses and firefighters never had to fight against the prospect of losing their basic union rights, when the recession hit and funding was cut, they were forced to make massive concessions. They agreed to pay freezes, watched as firings occurred and compromised over some of their benefits like pensions and prevailing wage. All things that the “No on 2” ads say they would be subjected to without collective bargaining. Unfortunately, organized labor did not stand a chance in a state run by a Democrat they supported in the election just a few years before. Indeed, the Strickland years were no springtime for labor.

The false choice pushes other electoral options that Ohio voters have to the fringes and this duality bleeds into the time between elections: youʼre either with us or against us. This year, organizers in the state have been able to mobilize tens of thousands, but the solutions proposed by the major players are not always right. Union officials were at first begging for compromise on SB5 (Issue 2) before it was passed, showing that, after two decades of capitulation, they were willing to sacrifice again. An unprecedented movement took the lead early on while the unionsʼ leadership were lagging behind. And though the unions are to be praised for their work in helping the defeat of the issue during the elections, none should forget that only when angst turned into action, did they start standing firm against the measures. In this new movement, loyalty to the previous administration is clear, but what Ohio needs, just like the rest of the country, is a permanent wedge driven between the major partiesʼ fork in the road.

This wedge needs to be a working peopleʼs movement, and while unions can play a large role, the movement needs to recognize the struggles of all of Ohioʼs workers. The unions are not part of the problem, on the contrary, they can be part of the solution. But their focus must broaden if they are to enact lasting social change, and they should be met by other groups. A successful movement can’t just be a union movement.

Over the past year, labor and student groups have worked together in ways rarely seen before, but questions of environmentalism and imperialism, for example, have yet to be included in the discussion. This movement needs to be radical, permanent and democratic with a healthy dose of internationalism; the movement have a lot to learn from their counterparts in the Arab world. An inclusive movement will focus not only on the issues of jobs and unemployment, but larger questions of inequality and disenfranchisement. It can not preoccupy itself with the reactionism of its origins, or of the republicans.

There has been no room for a broader discussion thus far and the movement itself tends to use slogans with embedded chauvinism, for example “helping middle class families.” A movement that helps all workers can not be successful if it plays into the divisions of class, sexuality, race, gender, or any other bend. It can not risk alienating members of its movement because of rhetoric.

A truly radical movement in Ohio, which there have been glimpses of, will recognize the solidarity of all workers and aim to alleviate all of the problems of the world. It will not focus on electing one of the two parties of business. It will include demands like full employment, universal healthcare, good wages and true democracy. And it will embrace and embolden the institutions that SB5 and other legislative attacks on workers endanger.

Enter Occupy Wall Street

As the seasons changed and the tide of activism ebbed, the makings of a revolution have stepped to the fore. The Occupy movement, with its slogans of “ending corporate greed” and “holding the 1% accountable,” has in it the kernel of something larger. And though the origins lie with the labor movements that raged during the first half of 2011, it exists outside of the realm of party politics. This is its most promising feature.

While labor has played a role in the occupations, from its participation in the Oakland General Strike on November 2nd, to the turnout in force at occupations around the country, the virtue of being a working people’s movement is just one of its advantages. In Ohio, the occupy movement can and must fill the political void left after the defeat of Issue 2, and it must lead the way forward toward changing the system, instead of maintaining the status quo. What Occupy offers is a third way, it illustrates that democracy exists away from the ballot boxes, in the streets and parks of cities across the country.

Labor issues are but one of the focuses of the movement. In Columbus, Occupy the Oval, at the Ohio State University, is a strong student movement with dozens of young, self-described “revolutionaries.” The students have organized marches, walkouts and teach-ins and these activists and are a presence of light that should serve to inspire activists nationwide. The students, emboldened by existing strong movements on campus, like one of the country’s most successful chapters of Students Against Sweatshops, see that a just world is possible and that the institution is where some of the ideas that form that world can be developed.

In Cincinnati, Occupy the Hood, a fraction of the main Occupy Cincinnati is moving to protest against, and protect families from, the foreclosure of homes. These occupations have taken a principled stance in favor of peace, love, justice, equality and international solidarity; hardly a reformist program.

Ironically, in Ohio, the occupy movement needs to improve most in its interactions with labor. While it has postured itself in support of the working class, in this case the broad “99%,” and the local movements have received endorsements and other help from trade unions, the rank and file have yet to put foot to pavement in support of the occupation. What is happening more than anything else is a quid-pro-quo, that is, the unions were looking for something, be it newly registered voters and even de facto endorsements from the occupation (mainly in opposition to issue 2) in return for material support. But what is needed more than anything is warm bodies in the parks and streets.

Looking Forward to 2012

Without the support of the working masses, the revolutionary potential falls short. Just as thousands of new activists were radicalised in the months leading up the occupation, thousands more are needed in order to bring the demands and aims of the Occupy movement to a head. There is no question that the occupiers were among the 61% of voters who said no to the union busting legislation, so maybe a quid-pro-quo is in order after all. If Occupy is the successor of the large movements in the first half of the year, then it’s clear that its members played by the rules of those movements and helped bring a victory. The question now is how the movement can capture the support of those institutions that have historically ended their campaigns on the first Wednesday in November.

This is why many were alarmed at the November endorsement by SEIU, one of the unions that have marched with the occupiers, of Obama for president in the upcoming presidential election. The language of the announcement was the language of Occupy, with officials claiming “We need a leader willing to fight for the needs of the 99 percent.” But instead of working with the occupations to figure out what those needs are, SEIU is providing the marching orders and attempting to take the organizational power of the movement, and use it to “occupy congress” in order “to pressure Republicans to support Obama’s jobs creation proposals” which they claim is a goal of the larger occupy movement. By ignoring the constant claims by occupations across the country that both the Republicans and the Democrats are the problem, SEIU risks losing the support of the first movement in the United States in years that could actually mean working people retaking control of their democracy.

In Ohio, this presidential strategy will surely be applied to state and federal congressional campaigns. Sherrod Brown, the democratic senator, is up for reelection and Ohio’s congressional maps will be redrawn by November, meaning candidates will have to address issues facing constituents with whom they may not have shared a district previously. In Cincinnati, the danger of reductionism to electoral politics is clear. After four members of city council lost their reelection bids, the occupation cheered because of the prior actions of these members in relation with the movement. The defeat of those that the movement dubbed the “un-fantastic four” created an environment where occupiers were unwilling to make strong demands of the new council, such as a reduction in pay of city officials to the average household income in the municipality, for fear of losing potential allies of the now seven Democrat strong assembly.

What Occupy looks like to organizers in the Democratic party, is a group of thousands of activists who so believed in a political idea, that they were willing to sleep on the ground to prove their devotion. Regardless of the content of their arguments, the Occupy movement is on the left of the spectrum, so it’s ripe for co-option by the party where, as the saying goes, “social movements go to die.” Should this happen, the Democrats may win another election, but Ohio’s progressive movement will once again wither away like it did in 2006 and 2008. So, the question is, can the Occupy movement survive the 2012 elections?

The question of Occupy making it through 2012 is a question of participation. What the movement needs more than anything, especially after the encampments in all but a few cities across the country have been cleared, is more people on the streets. These elections will mean competition for the Occupation movement. In communities and neighborhoods across not only Ohio but the rest of the country, where there will be different and opposing forces trying to engage citizens. One will be occupiers, who are generally committed not to a party, but to the idea of democracy. The second group is Organizing for America, formerly “Obama for America,” who registered over a million new voters in Ohio in 2008 and have continuously organized since then. The language that the organizers for OFA and the institutions that, while liberal in their politics, are conservative in their endorsements will use is going to be the language of the Occupation, there is no question. What Occupy needs to offer, while probably not in the form of political candidates, is a political platform that runs contrary to that which the Democrats, who are a party of the 1%, offer.

The End of Reform

Occupation is a revolutionary act and it is an act that needs to expand past the parks into the workplaces of the 99%. In 2008, the workers of Republic Windows and Doors staged an occupation of their workplace after they were told they would be laid off without any of the benefits promised in their contracts. After 2 weeks physically controlling their factory, they won and the factory stayed open. In Wisconsin, activists occupied the capital as union-busting legislation, not unlike SB5 in Ohio, was being deliberated often behind closed doors in the statehouse, these actions gave democrats no choice but to flee the state to deny quorum and delay a vote. At the same time, in Egypt, millions of people occupied Tahrir square and brought about a revolution which toppled a dictatorship.

The Egyptian case is a special one, and it illustrates what is at stake if occupiers go home. After the Mubarak regime was ousted, the military seized power and is very tightly controlling the “transitional” process to a “new” government. As has already been stated, the Democratic party, especially Barack Obama may attempt to seize the rhetoric and the energy of Occupy. Just as the Egyptian revolution must be a permanent one, one that fights against all forms of exploitation and oppression, the Occupy movement needs to be permantent as well. Unions can be allies, but they must not impose their largely top-down power structures on the movement. This method of organizing will stymie progress and attempts to co-opt already threaten to stall things.

This is not to say that Occupy should exist free of outside influence–there are many places where it must improve. Most crucial, as it develops its political makeup, it must recognize the ideas of the libertarian block, who espouse beliefs as reactionary as the Tea Party, as opposed to the basic principles that the movement represents. Occupy must not be afraid to name its enemy: Capitalism. This will not be Ron Paul’s Revolution. Even without having them explicitly stated, the values of Occupy run counter to the values of the libertarian right, namely the value of equality. Libertarians see the the state giving way to the “free” market as the liberating event that will save the 99%. They also espouse anti-immigrant and often nativist viewpoints. And let us not forget that the infatuation with John Galt, of Ayn Rand’s “Atlus Shrugged,” who believes that society owes him nothing and he owes nothing to society, is a selfish position that rejects to the simple idea of collective democracy and collective struggle that define the Occupy movement.

The struggle is real, and the 99% is a revolutionary force. In makeup it is a force of workers and students and it is a force that includes all minority groups and all of the oppressed. It is a force that while addressing the ideas of different identities, sees the struggles of different groups as connected by who the oppressor is. The 1% is everyone’s enemy. 2011 was a year when the working class of Ohio and the world realized that it had the power to fight back. Let 2012 be the year that Ohio and the world win what is rightfully ours: our lives, our freedom and our dignity, and our world.

This post also appeared on the blog of the Cincinnati International Socialist Organization