Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, had likened the threat to faculty unions in Ohio from Senate Bill 5 to the Sword of Damocles. By late Tuesday night that sword seemed to be back in its sheath, as voters repealed the bill -- with more than 60 percent voting against it.
It was a resounding victory for organized labor, including public college and university faculty unions, whose very existence was threatened by the bill.
Nelson said the impact of a win would be tremendous. “A win in Ohio could carry some weight; it is a message to the right that an anti-union bill is not a slam dunk. They can put a lot of time and energy into this and still lose,” Nelson said.
The battle over SB 5 in Ohio was an unusual one, as faculty found themselves in the trenches with firefighters and policemen, fighting to repeal a bill passed earlier this year that severely restricted collective bargaining by public employees. While most of the public debate about the bill was not about faculty unions, key portions of the legislation were drafted to be sure that academic unions would be largely eliminated from the state's colleges and universities.
Ohio Governor John Kasich described the bill as a cost-cutting move; faculty unions saw it as a call to war. And battle they did, with AAUP Ohio raising nearly $700,000, the most money the organization has ever raised for a cause anywhere in the country.
Nelson said faculty unions everywhere would be buoyed by a victory. “Higher ed has to be independent from political forces,” Nelson said. If SB 5 remained in effect, unions like AAUP Ohio would be in a desperate situation because 10 percent of the organization’s revenues come from the state, Nelson said.
John McNay, the AAUP chapter president at the University of Cincinnati, who was headed to a tavern to celebrate late Tuesday, said the outcome was a victory for the working people of Ohio. “SB 5 was designed to eliminate the AAUP and would have undermined the standards of academic freedom and shared governance that our union has fought for over the decades at more than a dozen Ohio institutions,” McNay said via e-mail. “The result would have been universities with all the academic integrity of a Burger King. Now we’ve shown that we can defend ourselves.”
He said the fight over the bill had created a historic link between faculty members and the “more traditional union movement.”
Many union experts feel that the proposal to limit collective bargaining had the opposite effect: unions in Ohio now feel energized and much stronger. “It was an unprecedented attack and it led to an unprecedented galvanizing and building of a coalition,” said Gary Rhoades, a University of Arizona professor and the former general secretary of the AAUP.
He said some Republicans tend to overestimate the anti-union sentiment in the country and that is what had happened in this case. “It takes a whole lot to repeal a law but when you go against the working class and the middle class, this is what happens,” Rhoades said.
He called on college presidents in Ohio to try and reestablish trust with their employees. “They should come to the table and bargain in good faith,” he said. “University presidents should not be behaving like Wall Street executives.”
But Rhoades, like many others representing unions, said the victory was a temporary reprieve. “It is very likely they will try something else,” he said. “But nothing else has brought us together like this before.”