Two days after this year’s election, the New York Times published a list of the results of notable election campaigns, including ballot measures across the country.
Missing from the list was an important ballot measure to workers: An Ohio proposal to gut the state’s workers’ compensation system, the system that provides medical benefits and compensation to workers injured on the job.
In a stunning victory for organized labor, citizen groups and workers’ compensation attorneys, Ohio voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal known as Issue 2, by a 57-to-43 percent margin.
Big Business in Ohio poured at least three times as much into the “yes” campaign as opponents contributed to the “no” side. Corporate interests probably spent something approaching $10 million on the campaign, although official numbers will not be available until a December disclosure deadline. By mid-October, just the Big 3 automakers, plus Honda (which has a plant in Ohio) had donated approximately a million dollars to the campaign.
The big corporations’ “yes” campaign relied on saturation advertising that alleged injured workers routinely defraud the workers’ comp system (while neglecting to provide any evidence of significant worker fraud) and charged that lawyers representing injured workers siphon money from the workers’ compensation system (without mentioning that those lawyers are necessitated in large part by the highly paid corporate lawyers employed to represent employers and to contest claims that employers know to be valid).
The “yes” campaign was not above employing some dirty tricks. Perhaps the most egregious was a mailing encouraging a “yes” vote that was sent to Democratic voters. The envelope featured a donkey (the Democratic Party’s logo) and said “A Message to Democratic Voters.” To all but the most knowing of eyes, it appeared to be a mailing from the Party — although in fact the Democrats had officially endorsed a “no” vote. In an emergency hearing, the Ohio Election Commission found probable cause that the mailing violated Ohio election law.
The “yes” campaign also prominently featured Republican Governor George Voinovich, who appeared in a couple television commercials and actively campaigned for a “yes” vote. Voinovich degraded himself and the governor’s office by signing on to a fundraising letter to corporations reminding them that, in Ohio, there are no corporate campaign contribution limits for a ballot referendum. Voinovich also sent a letter to contractors with the state, urging them to contribute to the “yes” campaign.
Organized labor, the workers’ compensation lawyers and their allies were able to overcome the massively funded “yes” campaign with a grassroots effort that educated workers (and especially injured workers) of the threat posed by Issue 2. Issue 2, they explained, would make it virtually impossible to get workers’ compensation benefits for workers who contracted carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive motion injuries. Issue 2 would have prevented consideration of a worker’s education, skill level and past work experience in determining whether the worker was permanently and totally disabled. And Issue 2 would have made important records maintained by the state Division of Safety and Hygiene secret.
Organized labor and the opponents of Issue 2 spread their message not just through television advertisements, but through hundreds of thousands of leaflets, mailings, newsletters, phone calls, letters to the editor, demonstrations, lawn signs and buttons. In the weeks leading up to November 4, the campaign really took off — neighbors spoke to each other about Issue 2, workers discussed the referendum at coffee breaks, ministers gave sermons opposing the injustice of Issue 2. People took up the message of the campaign as their own.
On November 4, Ohio voters turned out in relatively large numbers for an off-year election and defeated Issue 2.
On the heels of the successful UPS strike, the Ohio victory on Issue 2 suggests that organized labor may finally be finding its footing. When organized labor mobilizes its members and clearly articulates the concerns of working people, it can attract widespread public support.
But that is a story the major media seems eager to ignore. Instead, they preferred covering ballot measures on matters like assisted suicide and affirmative action — important issues, to be sure, but not questions that so directly challenge corporate power.