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Unions look for solidarity with Occupy Columbus protesters in labor-beleaguered Ohio


COLUMBUS – The Hell’s Angels of the 1960s infamously wore patches on their filthy vests embroidered with the inscription “1%-er,” a rebellious response to the American Motorcycle Association’s assertion that 99 percent of the nation’s bikers were respectable, law-abiding citizens. Now 1%-ers are vilified again, but instead of burly outlaws swinging motorcycle chains, they are wearing suits and bearing briefcases.

In Columbus, Ohio, around 200 protesters from a variety of backgrounds arrived Monday at the steps of the statehouse in an initial showing of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, a movement that began quietly several weeks ago and has now spread across the country.

Last Wednesday, labor unions joined the fray, lending their support to the protesters in New York. The Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations both actively declared their support, helping provide medical services, food and other material support to the activists.

In Columbus, where the labor movement is fighting Senate Bill 5, a controversial law passed last year that severely curtails collective-bargaining rights and puts an end to binding arbitration, the young Occupy movement is a ripe platform for unions to gain solidarity with non-member residents. SB 5 was given a referendum (Issue 2) on the November ballot after union organizers mounted a massive petition drive, acquiring nearly a million signatures.

“To quote Dr. Martin Luther King, [Jr.], we are here to dramatize a shameful condition,” said Arthur Brehm, a senior at The Ohio State University at the protest, of his participation in the Occupy movement. “Basically, the idea is that there’s been injustice going on for a very long time. And I’m here because there’s a lot of people who want to be here now, to say that. There weren’t two, three months ago, but now there’s a lot of people talking about it.”

Brehm, who is not a union member, identified SB5 as an important element of the Occupy Columbus movement.

“It’s symptomatic of the same sort of anger [as in NYC], but our own particular anger here that we’re reacting to is S.B.5,” he said. “It’s illegal to do wildcat strikes now, which was the most powerful tool of the union,” he continued. “So, when you castrate the unions, and they don’t actually have any capabilities anymore, that’s when people think of them of these sort of antiquated institutions.”

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/protest-photo-1-e1318350104671-200x300.jpgOccupy Columbus (Photo by David S. Lewis)

Derek Lory, another non-union protester, shared his sentiments.

“There are people here that are in unions, and we are anticipating a number of unions joining with us,” he said. “This is Occupy Columbus, and [opposing] SB5 is definitely a part of what we are investing in this movement. The people’s voice are being muffled, and set aside for someone else’s financial gain.

“I’m not in a union, and I can’t speak for those people, but for those I know that are in unions, it would just be another bridge that they can’t cross, and too many people are already just barely getting by.”

Mark Stanisberry, a union member with the Communications Workers of America Local 4502, said while the Occupy Columbus movement was young, unions were already looking to lend it support — even as the message and methods are being drafted.

“Here, there are police officers who normally, if they saw us doing certain things, they would tell us to curtail our efforts,” he observed, gesturing at two officers standing calmly just outside the crowd. “But they’ve not been against us at all. They’re very supportive; they’re staying on the perimeter. In anti-war [protests] that I’ve seen, they come right in on their horses and start messing us up right away, but they’ve been very supportive out here.”

Ohio Governor John Kasich, who strongly supports SB5, drew the ire of many union members when he emphatically referred to a police officer that had lawfully ticketed him as “an idiot” in a speech to public union members. While similar union-reform laws passed in other states, such as Wisconsin and New Jersey, none of them included firefighter and police unions. Ohio’s SB5 provides no such exemption for public safety workers, making it extremely contentious across the spectrum of organized public employees. The law, if left on the books, will directly effect over 350,000 public workers in the state.

Stanisberry is optimistic, however.

“Right now, we’re just getting going here in Columbus. We’re open to start exploring what all kinds of occupations there can be,” he said, adding that a general assembly meeting would be held on Tuesday, October 11, to determine what path the Columbus movement would take.

When asked to speculate whether the Occupy movement could work, Stanisberry laughed.

“It’s working already!” he said. “It’s got people engaging in conversations that they haven’t had for a long time, especially some of these young folks. They’ve come out publicly and engaged themselves in a conversation about the future, or the economy, or what it is to be a young person moving into adulthood. I think just having these conversations started is what these actions are all about.

“We are already seeing the [dialogue in Washington] change within this dialogue that we are having out here on the street,” he continued. “We need to understand that this is a conversation that needs to be happening, and it’s happening in Columbus today.”

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