United States: Lorain County labour defends political independence

Ohioans successfully defeated Right to Work last time -- but it may come around again. Meanwhile, unions around Lorain have had it with Democrats who attack labour. Photo: AFSCME.

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By Bruce Bostick

November 17, 2014 -- Labor Notes, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In Ohio’s most trade union-dense county, the dominant Democratic Party machine declared war on what has historically been its own base: labour. So last year, in opposition to the machine, the labour federation in Lorain County, the Central Labor Council (CLC), ran and elected several independent candidates.

This time around, as an anti-union “Right to Work” bill looms again in Ohio, the CLC is taking aim at the leader of the pack: City of Lorain mayor Case Ritenauer.

Lorain is just west of Cleveland on Lake Erie. At the county’s huge Labor Day event, president Harry Williamson announced the CLC’s endorsement of community leader Tim Carrion for mayor, against Ritenauer, in next year’s elections. Carrion will either run as an independent or in the Democratic primary.

A split with the Democrats

The 2013 fight between organised labour and the Democrat machine became public after Ritenauer defeated former mayor and building trades union leader Tony Krasienko. The division quickly became an open split, as Ritenauer and his city council allies moved to abolish Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) that labour had spent three years of hard work to establish.

The PLAs established official minimum percentages of workers on all government contract jobs who needed to be minorities, women and local, and assured that these jobs were done union, with solid benefits for workers.

The agreements not only strengthened organised labour, but also brought jobs, benefits and decent pay to hard-pressed workers in the community, strengthened unity between labour and civil rights allies, and raised Lorain’s tax base and economic standards.

After Ritenauer and the Lorain City Council moved to wipe out the PLAs, Ritenauer and another councilmember actually put on overalls and openly scabbed during a walkout of Teamster sanitation workers.

Ran and won

After these attacks, the CLC decided to support independent candidacies for city council in Lorain. It endorsed and helped elect teacher Joshua Thornsberry and local businessman Greg Argenti. They and two dozen Democratic candidates endorsed by labour in Lorain and surrounding areas won, defeating Lorain Chamber of Commerce president Frank DeTillio and other Ritenauer allies.

Further widening the split, county commissioners and long-time Democratic Party leaders Lori Kokoski and Ted Kalo this past year supported using an anti-union law firm, Clemens & Nelson, to represent the county in negotiations with its employees. (The company has actually advertised “we bust unions”.) In a strange twist, the only Republican commissioner, Tom Williams, publicly sided with the workers.

This development has led to further divisions. In a tight vote, the CLC endorsed pro-labour Democrat Matt Lundy, but Williamson and UAW Community Action Program president Jim Slone made open “personal endorsements” of Republican Williams. In November’s elections, Lundy was elected county commissioner, 50.8% with 49.2% for Williams.

The CLC also endorsed a Republican state senator up for re-election next year, Gayle Manning, who has stated publicly that she will oppose “right to work” and try to bring other Republican votes against it with her. All elected Ohio Democrats openly oppose Right to Work.

Where from here?

Ohio labour, along with labour and its allies in Lorain County, is facing an all-out corporate attack — mainly supported by an increasingly extreme, anti-union Republican Party. But complicating the situation is the confusing, even contradictory, direction of the state’s other major party, the Democrats.

The Democratic Party ticket was headed by governor candidate Ed Fitzgerald, a county official from the Cleveland area. Though he took good, pro-labour positions, he ran with little momentum or financial support and was defeated by incumbent John Kasich in November. Meanwhile the Democratic candidate for secretary of state, Nina Turner, ran a tremendous campaign, promoting North Carolina-style “Moral Mondays”. She was also defeated.

Every elected Democrat in the Ohio statehouse stood with labour against the 2011 attack on public workers’ bargaining rights, Senate Bill 5. That was eventually defeated by referendum. Far from learning from its defeat, however, Ohio’s GOP, led by Kasich, has signaled its determination to mount another drive for “Right to Work”.

Not so fast

This isn’t a fight that labour picked. The independent steps unions have taken have been in response to attacks by their corporate enemy — in this case spearheaded by the old Democratic machine.

It’s true the CLC printed up and distributed hundreds of “Lorain County Independent Labor Party” T-shirts during the 2013 election. But while it’s an exciting option, the formation of a “Labor Party” is not on the immediate agenda there, despite what optimistic observers might say.

The question is, how can labour successfully defend itself and its gains, and fight for progressive steps forward?

For now, labour has begun looking at building new alliances, widening its base, in order to beat back the attacks. CLC president Williamson says he sees the new coalition VALU (veterans, African Americans, Latinos, Unions) as “in the interests of both organised labour and our friends in the community”.

Democratic Party leaders in Lorain have attempted to expel both Williamson and Building Trades leader Joe Thayer from the county’s Democratic Executive Committee for supporting independent candidates. But they have not agreed to leave.

Labour is conducting searches to find future candidates who are not only “independent”, but also come out of union struggles.

“That political machine has to depend on labour for votes”, said former local president and UAW retiree leader Jerry Donovan. “They’ve sure poisoned the water. We all need to get together to beat our worst enemies. If they want to stand with our enemies, they’ll go down, too!”

[Bruce Bostick is a long-time steelworker labour activist from Lorain. He was a leader of the National Steelworker’s Rank & File reform movement, as well as grievance chair at USW Local 1104, and was active in the Lorain County AFL-CIO labour federation for over three decades. He is presently the Ohio director of Steelworker’s Organization of Active Retirees.]