I'm heading into the tear gas
Dig in man, hold your ground
[The Nightwatchman, "Union Song"]
The last time I was surrounded by cops, I was getting shoved to the ground and screamed at while I choked from all the tear gas in the air. The police were in riot gear to break up the hundreds of drunken revelers I was gladly a part of, merely because it was past midnight and we were burning couches in the middle of Allyn Street in Akron, Ohio to celebrate May Day. Or maybe we were celebrating the end of a semester at the University of Akron. More likely, we were just getting wasted and rowdy for the sake of having a good time.
That was long ago- 15 years at least- and as I sit on the bus waiting to pull away from the Cleveland Patrolman's Police Association (CPPA), I can still feel my throat swelling from those horrid fumes that had me slobbering uncontrollably so many nights past.
It's 8:00 on a brisk March morning, and I'm riding on one of two buses, each holding about 20 Cleveland police officers, on our way for a two-and-a half hour ride to Columbus. We watched each other with a curious - if not alarming – eye. So, in an effort to show solidarity, I helped an officer load a cooler onto the bus...which cracked as we lifted it up the stairs, spilling all over my crotch. I looked like I had most certainly pissed my pants.
It was either ride with the cops, or go down to the state's capital on a bus from the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party. The idea of being stuck in a bus with people insisting on praising everything their party does- and engaging me in similar discussion- made me want to rip out my teeth and jam them slowly into my eyeballs. I figured at the very least it would be more exciting to throw myself to the wolves with badges, and see what happened.
We were heading down to Columbus to protest Senate Bill 5, which was still being debated in the state legislature. Introduced by Republican state Senator Shannon Jones, the bill aimed to cripple public unions by stripping public employees of the right to collectively bargain. According to the bill's own summary, it "Abolishes the collective bargaining rights of employees of the state, of any agency, authority, commission, or board of the state, and of any state institution of higher education." In addition, public employees could be arrested for going on strike, and binding arbitration would effectively be tossed out, giving final authority over disputes to management.
Jones- along with Republicans across the country, and especially Ohio's Governor John Kasich- have long been blaming public employees for the state's and country's financial woes. Their arguments sound like the craziest fiction you can imagine: teachers get paid too much; allowing police to unionize for better work equipment is contributing to the recession; firefighters should have to pay the same inflated health insurance premiums as people in the private sector.
It is this absurdity that had me nervously joining in camaraderie with Cleveland's finest. As we made our way down I-71, I heard them joke about locking arms with tree-hugging hippies and joining a drum circle, with an irony that illustrated something Jones, Kasich, and every last one of the rotten scumbags in our government who wants to turn this nation into a corporation could have never imagined: that their aggressive moves to privatize every public asset of the United States are going to unite the American public like it hasn't been in decades.
At one point, CPPA President Stephen Loomis told me, "Most of my guys actually vote for Republicans, so this isn't a bunch of Democrats we have here." It was simply a group of hard-working public servants who were sick of taking the blame for fat cats who have long been stealing from this country. The sad truth is that the very guys some of these cops voted for are using them as pawns in a political war, as the GOP works to get the labor unions- a force historically in favor of progressive candidates and opposed to those who want unchecked corporate control of the country- out of elections.
Take away their strength (i.e. the right to strike, and binding arbitration), and the unions are no longer relevant enough to organize voters come election time.
Koch's Jive Patriots
Before I can tell the tale of SB5, I should give a quick history of the Tea Party and the Koch Brothers.
Calling themselves a "reform movement," the Tea Party has been an ideology for many years, but it recently came back into media focus when groups began staging "Tea Party protests" in response to the government bailouts of the U.S. financial system in 2008 and 2009. On the surface, it would seem to be an alright outfit- the bailouts were, no doubt, rotten and hypocritical for a group pushing for "free enterprise," a concept that includes letting businesses fail if they can't make themselves sustainable- but even the slightest look behind the curtain shows that this sentiment is a pretty thin veil for what the Tea Party is really about.
Tea Party "patriots," as they like to be called, claim to be traditional conservatives, fed up with modern Republicans who too often compromise their core values. They feel this country is going to Hell because of too much liberal tolerance and empathy; they feel the government should stay out of people's affairs altogether (even though the very purpose of a democratic government is to benefit a society through collective representation). They hate taxes and love their guns, and they certainly aren't cool with homosexuals, Muslims, or anyone else who thinks differently than they do.
As fringe as this originally seemed, the Tea Party came out with alarming influence...and a remarkable amount of financial security for a group claiming to represent the downtrodden.
This is because in reality, the Tea Party is a ruse that has successfully attracted people who feel religious-based morality is the way this country should be governed, with the added notion that businesses should be virtually unrestricted in how they make profits, no matter the detriment to the greater good. It is bankrolled by people who know that those who take religion seriously will buddy up with anyone who makes them believe they worship the same God, and want to bring this country into alignment with His plan. It's an historically-proven guise of controlling powers, using religion to dupe the masses into sacrificing their rights for the profits of a tiny few.
One of the primary sources of income for the Tea Party comes from Americans for Prosperity, a special interest group co-founded by billionaire David Koch, who the New York Times called the "wealthiest man in New York City" in 2008. Americans for Prosperity is run by Tim Phillips, who has been working closely with Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition and other religious leaders to recruit voters into the Tea Party.
David and his brother Charles own Koch Industries, one of the the largest privately-owned companies in the United States. It was also named one of the top ten polluters in the U.S. in 2010. The Kochs constantly fight environmental regulations, and have made a name for themselves as opponents of labor unions. For example, in Wisconsin, Koch gave $43,000 to Scott Walker's campaign for governor, and $342,000 to an advertising campaign in support of Walker's battle against unions. They also paid $1 million to the Republican Governor's Association.
Naturally, they also gave money to other campaigns across the nation that supported their "free enterprise" attitude: "free enterprise" works so long as it keeps making the rich wealthier, despite their inability to sustain economic viability, and even if it means selling off public assets for private gain.
Tea Party Darling of the Week
Shannon Jones became a state senator in 2010, and is currently the Senate majority whip. She makes $65,584 a year in taxpayer money working part-time (notably more than most cops or teachers make working full-time). She came into power with a zeal that shocked even her closest allies, and her colleagues quickly realized she was a force to be reckoned with.
She also came into public office as a shill for privatization, with endorsements from groups advocating home schooling over public education, as well plenty of support from the Tea Party. Indeed, Americans for Prosperity has praised Jones' efforts to eliminate public unions, which would give more power to bureaucrats at the cost of the employees...much like an unregulated, private company can jerk around their employees without repercussions.
Jones represents the frustration of people who assume that teachers, cops and other public employees get to enjoy increased salaries and benefits, no matter what kind of financial woes the state or country faces. The problem is, they're simply mistaken. The hard fact is that public employees HAVE suffered alongside the rest of the country. Some of the cops I talked to on the bus told me they hadn't seen a pay raise in four years, and several have to work second jobs to make ends meet. They also take unpaid furlough days that nobody in the private sector swallows.
These are the guys that are supposed to protect our communities; I for one prefer them to be well-rested, if not financially secure enough to live without dread about their bills. I pay taxes like millions of other citizens in the country, and I want the most out of my money.
As far as teachers are concerned, the Cleveland Plain Dealer pointed out that "Ohio's teachers, on average, saw a pay cut of 4 percent in 2008-2009." Moreover, the argument that teachers get bigger pensions than private sector employees ignores the fact that teachers don't get to collect Social Security when they retire.
I recently caught up with Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D- OH), a long-time supporter of worker's rights. He said the issue isn't whether or not teachers are overpaid, but rather, "The question is whether or not we have any self respect, and whether we have any respect for those who help to guide the intellectual development of our children.
"The very fact that teachers are under attack, shows you how upside-down our culture has been thrust."
Jones and her supporters conceal the reality that this country's financial woes are a direct result of unchecked capitalism and corporate greed. Kucinich added, "Wall Street has profited MIGHTILY, from the tax cuts, from the war...Anyone who could, with a straight face, try to put this on workers, needs to be called to an accounting in an election."
But Jones herself is merely a soldier in this battle, albeit one who eagerly embraces her role as a union-busting conservative. She is simply a tool of the machinery fueled substantially by groups like Koch Industries, and run in Ohio by John Kasich.
CEO of the Buckeye State
In the history of Ohio politics, no Governor has represented corporate gluttony and capitalistic greed as much as John Kasich.
Before John Kasich became governor, he was a commentator on Fox News Channel, where he hosted From the Heartland and frequently guest-hosted The O'Riley Factor. He was also managing director for Lehman Brothers' investment banking division in Columbus. Lehman Brothers' collapse- the largest bankruptcy filing in US history- helped trigger the Great Recession of 2008.
While there, he worked on a deal that raided Ohio state pension funds (primarily those for police and firefighters), ultimately conning the pensions to invest in toxic assets that cost the state of Ohio $220-$480 million, depending on how you calculate it all.
Of course, Kasich insists that as managing director, he was not involved in any decision-making at Lehman Brothers, despite what his title suggests to any half-sane person. Nonetheless, he received a $400,000 bonus for his efforts.
When campaigning for governor in 2009, he promised to "break the back of organized labor in the school," and fought on behalf of large corporations, which obviously got him plenty of support from the Tea Party. He went so far as to declare, "I think I was in the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party." Not surprisingly, he received at least $22,000 from the Kochs, and several million more from other Tea Party loyalists.
While incumbent governor Ted Strickland certainly had his faults, nobody expected that a man so openly loyal to the wealthiest people in the country- and opposed to a real working class- would win. Yet somehow, in November, 2010, Kasich won the election. When he took office the following January, he immediately set forth an agenda to sell off almost all of Ohio's public assets, such as the Ohio Turnpike, the Ohio Lottery, and Ohio prisons. To make matters worse, his budget plan strips Ohio school districts of nearly $400 million in state aid.
In short, he's doing everything he can to turn the Ohio government into a corporation, where he reigns as the Chief Executive Officer.
"Privatization is really the hidden threat to the public behind all these machinations," says Kucinich, "because what this is about is trying to take what inherently belongs to the public- services which belong to the public, services that make up the government itself- and just auctioning them off to the highest bidder...or to no bidder at all, and just giving it away. Giving away freeways, the lottery, streets, bridges, sewer, water, you name it. There's nothing that will be safe from the privatizers."
Then he warns, "It's really important for people to understand that there are countless billions of dollars in public assets which will be on the line, that corporations are using their political power right now not just to crush collective bargaining, but to steal public assets."
Senate Bill 5
As he was preparing to turn over the governor's office, Ted Strickland pointed out that collective bargaining had never been an issue in the state's financial status. As the Columbus Dispatch reported, "'I don't feel like it's hindered me,' he said, noting that workers agreed to forgo raises and take 10 unpaid furlough days. 'I really feel like we've gotten really good cooperation from the state employees.'"
Even so, once Kasich took power, Senate Bill 5 was rushed into reality when Jones introduced the bill to the Insurance, Commerce and Labor Committee on February 1, 2011. Immediately, public servants started massing together in protest, and soon the statehouse was packed with protesters from all over Ohio and beyond. Kasich didn't seem bothered; he was too busy calling cops "idiots" at a seminar about providing good customer service.
Among other things, the bill calls for: reducing collective bargaining rights for all Ohio public workers, affecting some 350,000 teachers, firefighters, police, etc; arresting or fining public employees who go on strike; teachers could no longer negotiate class sizes; safety forces could lose the right to negotiate for protective equipment.
As headlines across the globe told of the fight in Madison, Wisconsin to protect labor unions, the same battle was raging in Columbus, Ohio.
The protest we were heading for was happening a full month after the bill had been introduced, and a few weeks before it was to be voted on by the Ohio House of Representatives. We were part of a larger group of safety forces, teachers, and any other workers who had benefited from collective bargaining that was meeting down at the state capital.
We pulled up to the statehouse around 11a.m. We stepped out into an electric atmosphere on S. 3rd Street, with people assembling protesters, scores of men and women, young and old with various signs- from "Don't Steal Our Right To Collective Bargaining" to "My First Graders Listen Better Than My Governor"- and the sidewalk streaming with firefighters, cops, and dozens of others.
I walked around to the other side of the capitol building, where a large crowd was gathering around a stage. By noon, there were thousands of people in Capitol Square, with various speakers engaging the crowd with tales of support for public workers. Military people talked about how they had fought for their country to provide a fair place to work; teachers talked about how collective bargaining had given them the power to keep their classroom sizes down to manageable levels, thus allowing them to better teach their students; firefighters and police took the stage to talk about how they too were struggling with the rest of the state during this time of economic hardship.
Between speakers, the crowd shouted things like "Kill the bill!" and "Kasich sucks!" and other chants, as the audience continued to grow throughout the afternoon. There were dozens of people holing up inside the building, too, chanting "Kill the bill!" and more.
One particularly interesting speech came from an evangelical pastor from Cincinnati, Troy Jackson of the University Christian Church. He talked about how his grandfather was part of a union while working for General Motors, and both his parents were public school teachers. On stage, he warned, "Labor can be vulnerable to manipulation and oppression if they are not protected, and if their rights are not guaranteed." He added that Isaiah once told the rich, "You will not be heard by God until the workers are treated with respect and dignity."
It was a powerful message coming from an openly conservative source: this isn't about Republican vs Democrat; it's not really about conservative vs. liberal ideologies. The fight over SB5- and similar fights in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Indiana and beyond- is about forces of Greed pushing for more and more power.
Heading back to Cleveland that afternoon, the cops on the bus were invigorated, in a celebratory mood. They sang Irish folk tunes and blasted Dropkick Murphys. These were good, hard-working people, riding a collective high of victory. In that small moment in time, the feeling of success wasn't because we turned over the bill, but merely because for at least one day, thousands of people from all walks of life were able to join together UNITED, in their state's capitol, and as a community, actively engage in true democracy.
Victory For the Tea Party
Unfortunately, despite the overwhelming outpouring of public opposition in weeks of protests, the Ohio legislature passed SB5 on March 30, with Kasich signing it into law the next day. After weeks of deliberation, several dissenting GOP members were yanked off the committee minutes before their vote, replacing them with people who were sure to vote for it. It was backhanded, shady politics as usual, with a business approach that refused to fail, despite ethics or decency or that pesky Will of The People.
However, the fervor of the populace was still fresh, and rather than accept defeat, supporters of worker's rights launched immediately into Phase 2: getting a voter referendum on November's ballot that would let the people decide whether or not their public servants should be allowed to collectively bargain. As it now stands, SB5 will take effect on July 6...unless enough signatures are gathered to get the referendum on the ballot.
Since the Tea Party has gained prominence- and since corporations are now allowed to pour literally as much money as they want into political campaigns- this war is far from over. Corporate greed grows more and more out of control every day, with absurdly wealthy people and companies getting away with paying no taxes at all, while the working class toils day after day to chip their fair share.
In a day and age where a conglomerate like GE can boast annual profits of over $14 billion, yet effectively pay no taxes whatsoever, something is terribly askew, and it sure as hell isn't a cop's salary or a teacher's pension.
Unions aren't perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. My only experience with a union was when I was 18 and working at a plastics factory. The benefits were decent enough, but two weeks after getting a promotion to line supervisor, I was demoted because "there weren't enough minorities in supervisor positions," according to my shop steward. Yes, I lost my position- and was forced to take a pay cut- because I had white skin.
In the back of my mind, I knew I could protest this up the hierarchy for the union, but I hated working the midnight shift at a factory anyway, so I quit and looked for another job. The truth of the matter was that since I had no family, and very limited financial obligations, I didn't really care about job security.
Despite my terrible experience, I always knew that the presence of organized labor was an essential component of social progress, because it keeps management in check. In almost every job I've had since then, I've eventually had to deal with some avaricious supervisor, manager, or VP who would push us to work harder and harder with no increased wages or benefits, and my only options were to bite the bullet, or quit.
I even tried to organize my coworkers to protest hazardous and grueling work conditions at my last job, and while a few acted like they were going to stand firm, at the end of the day they were AFRAID to speak up against our sleazeball bosses for fear of losing their jobs. Our bosses were well aware of this dread, and they openly used it to their advantage. They'd fire employees for frivolous (and sometimes staged) reasons, and then force additional duties on other employees who were already overburdened. Any question was met with, "you either do it, or we'll fire you and find someone who will."
Eventually, I was fired for speaking up. This was an office job, for a private company that does nothing for this world other than promote a cheap commodity for bakeries. I wasn't risking my life or anything else for the greater good.
Public service should be ABOVE the sleazy private sector, if only to encourage top-notch candidates to apply. Teachers are tasked with the upbringing of our younger generations; cops and firefighters put their lives on the line every day for relatively small paychecks. These people- and the majority of public workers- take these jobs because historically the incentives of making your community a better place have come with some of the spoils of capitalism, and they are entitled to no less than that.
Unlike companies like GE and the billionaire Koch brothers, those of us in the working class each pay our fair share in taxes, and that will never change. We deserve to have the best police, firefighters, and teachers our money can buy, so as to further progress our society. These are assets of the PUBLIC, not a commodity that can be traded like junk stock on Wall Street.
After Pastor Jackson gave his empowering speech I talked with him for a bit, and he pointed out that "Jesus promoted economic equality."
Indeed, Matthew 21:12 talks about Jesus finding people using the temple courts in Jerusalem for business. He overturned their tables and chased them out, scolding them for turning the place into a "den of robbers."
Kasich, Jones, and the Tea Party are dead-set on turning this country's government- our public assets- into a new kind of corporation, where they enjoy the spoils that the working class produces. The Tea Party represents nobody's rights other than the business desires of people like John Kasich and the Koch brothers.
It's high time somebody overturned their tables, and threw them out of our grounds.