Local Politics: The Republican-union relationship

William Hershey
Photo of late Ohio governor George Voinovich

As Ohio Republicans attempt to continue their stranglehold on state government this year, they might want to consider whether they've strayed from the pragmatic conservatism that has served them well.

One important measure is how they get along with the state's unions. That might seem an odd yardstick since the men and women of organized labor usually are considered important parts of the Democratic coalition.

The late George Voinovich, who got his political schooling in the Democratic stronghold of Cleveland, understood that not all union members are automatic Democratic voters and that it does no good to antagonize those who are.

Bob Taft knew the same thing.

Voinovich, who died in 2016, was elected to the first of his two terms as governor in 1990. In his successful re-election in 1994, Voinovich, a former Cleveland mayor and later a U.S. senator, received nearly 72 percent of the vote, a 20th-century record.

While covering Voinovich during a 1995 trip he took to Washington, D.C., I heard him speak to the leadership council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal employees, a powerful public employee union.

He seemed an odd choice for a speaker, but I wasn't aware of the groundwork Voinovich had done to foster good relations with union members.

Ohio's public employee unions had helped Voinovich engineer a governing tool called “Quality Service Through Partnership.”

“Together with our unions, we're changing the way we do business,” Voinovich said.

When Taft, who knew about unions from his political start in Cincinnati, won the first of his two terms as governor in 1998, he understood that union leaders would be wary. His grandfather, the late U.S. Sen. Robert A. Taft, had earned the enmity of unions by co-authoring the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which reduced union power.

“One of Bob's first speeches was to the Ohio AFL-CIO, where he received a standing ovation and made a pledge to work with labor unions, not against them,” Mary Anne Sharkey, Taft's communications director said by email.

Both Voinovich and Taft were aware of what happened to Ohio Republicans in 1958 when they put a “right-to-work” issue on the ballot to eliminate “union shops” where all workers are required to join unions or pay dues.

The issue went down, 63 percent to 37 percent, and just one Republican won a statewide office.

Republicans, including Gov. John Kasich, ignored this lesson in 2011 when they enacted legislation to cripple public-employee unions. Voters repealed that political mistake, 62-38 percent, an indication that public opinion had not changed much since 1958.

This year, state Reps. Craig Riedel of Defiance and John Becker of Union Township near Cincinnati have proposed six anti-union amendments they want to put before voters in 2020, a presidential election year when turnout will be high.

The proposals would prohibit union shops for private and public unions and place other restrictions on public unions, the real strength of organized labor today.

There's no sign that Republican leadership at the Statehouse will go ahead with these proposals. Democrats, however, should hope they do. That would be a sure-fire way to rile up Democratic voters and get them to the polls, both this year and in 2020.