On Tuesday, November 8, citizens from the state of Ohio voted overwhelmingly against Issue Two?a referendum that would have destroyed the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees. What follows are some reflections a week after this victory.
I walked by the office the other night, and the windows were dark. That wasn?t usually the case the last few months. The second floor of the United Christian Ministries in Athens had housed ?We Are Ohio,? the chief organization behind the successful fight to overturn Senate Bill Five (SB5), which was subject to referendum as Issue Two on the ballot. I spent a few evenings there, calling up prospective voters in the upcoming election or getting canvass sheets to go knock on doors. Two students who had taken my classes in American history were pulling fourteen-hour days as head organizers at the office. It was usually abuzz with excitement.
Living in Ohio for the last ten years, I have made phone calls and knocked on doors for numerous candidates?state representatives, congresspeople, senators, governors, and presidential candidates. It?s not work I enjoy, but it?s something I feel compelled to do. I find phone-calling difficult, because people usually register uncertainty about what the candidate in question stands for, apprehensiveness and cynicism about who they are. I can?t blame them. There is something cynical about the deluge of phone calls around election time.
But with Issue Two, things were different. In numerous cases I got a response like, ?Yeah, I have a neighbor who?s a?? followed by the word fireman, policeman, teacher, or janitor. ?They?ve talked to me about this thing, and I?m against it.? The conversations neighbors were having in their local settings made my work easy. Enter a ?No on 2? for the person into the computer and move onto the next phone call. I remember calling a young self-identified Republican who told me that his mom, a schoolteacher, was taking him on election day to vote, and he had heard all about the issue, thank you very much. It?s not that all phone calls went this way, but many did. Few people mentioned advertisements they saw on television if they cited anything persuading them at all.
The organizers had an excellent database up and running. On election day in 2010 I phoned people for Governor Strickland?s race who were on ?persuasion? lists, meaning people who were undecided. It was a horrible experience getting Republicans on the phone when we should have been getting our vote out. In the case of Issue Two, the database included info on whether or not a person had signed the original petition to get the issue on the ballot. That was a huge grassroots campaign, and knowing how the person related to it also helped assess their current position on the issue. The campaign had its snags, but for the most part it worked smoothly, drawing upon local energy and coordination.
JUST DOWN the block from the We Are Ohio office was an area where Occupy Ohio University (OU) had held its chief events. These were students inspired by the national Occupy movement, trying to find a way to target something locally. I live in a company town where the university dominates everything, so these young people figured that they?d occupy their university (really they camped out in a space that once held a small restaurant). It wasn?t really that clear how the university was on par with Wall Street. Nonetheless, I had a number of colleagues who went to the Occupy events and participated in the group?s teach-ins. One friend taught about how ancient Greece had witnessed class polarization and went into decline. The students were amazed at reverberations throughout history that related to their own times.
When the campaign against SB5 was over, Occupy OU was pretty much over too. There weren?t any concrete demands made by the students, as far as I could tell. They had wanted to register their affinity for a movement and had; that was enough. They faded into the background.
When my friend who taught the course on Ancient Greece and I went to a Celebration Party on Issue 2, she noted that none of the Occupy students she had met were there. Instead, it was the usual cast of College Democrats and activists, some of them having cut their teeth on the Obama campaign, some going back further. I wasn?t surprised by her observation. The Occupy movement struck me as just that?a protest movement, loose in its orientation and more about galvanizing anger. Issue Two, on the other hand, was a campaign, following Richard Rorty?s famous dichotomy. In Achieving Our Country, Rorty wrote, ?By ?campaign,? I mean something finite, something that can be recognized to have succeeded or to have, so far, failed. Movements, by contrast, neither succeed nor fail. They are?too amorphous to do anything that simple.? The two worlds didn?t really fit together. People brought different expectations and desires to both. My own preference was for the defined target of the campaign, not the diffuse discontent of the movement.
Of course, the victory was a negative one?we had pushed back, against Governor John Kasich?s overreach. Still, by remaining focused and telling a story that related to the lives of ordinary citizens, the campaign against Issue Two showed off what can be done when grassroots action remains focused and organized.