Students Rally in Columbus in Support of Union Rights

Elise Shulman-Reed, News Editor

Thousands gathered on Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, to support public-sector union employees’ right to collective bargaining. Fifty-five Oberlin students made the trek to the state house to join in the protest.

Protesters marched to the state capitol where the Legislature held hearings on Senate Bill 5 — a proposal that would eliminate almost all collective bargaining and prohibit negotiating over health care benefits, among other changes. Ohio’s bill comes on the heels of mass protests against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to strip workers of their bargaining power.

In an interview with CNN, Ohio Governor John Kasich said that public employees should have the ability to negotiate on some matters, but that management should be free to make other decisions, such as levels of contribution for pensions, unincumbered. “If we do not get a handle on pensions, if we do not get a handle on healthcare, a lot of these employees could ultimately be left high and dry, and I don’t want to see that happen.”

“I’m out here to protect my job and my rights. [SB-5] is a dismantling of the middle class by the Republican regime, and we will have a voice in this state,” said Brian Garman, union member and firefighter from Warren, Ohio.

Instead of spending his day off at home, Garman protested for hours in the cold with a group of fellow firefighters who turned out to show their support for union rights. But even frigid Ohio temperatures couldn’t dampen Garman and other protesters’ determination to have their voices heard.

“After a depressing week of talking about all this stuff, it’s so great to be out here with all these people today,” said Yvonne Vadeboncoeur, associate professor of biological sciences at Wright State University in Dayton, OH. “It’s so energizing.”

“It was so amazing to see an issue that people have rallied around from all over the state — it was a stunning show of sentiment against this vote,” said Joseph Condon, College sophomore and co-chair of the Oberlin College Democrats.

Kate Excoffon, assistant professor in biology at Wright State University, emphasized that this issue will have a tremendous effect on all Ohio residents.

“I’m here because when I calculated it, they’re going to take roughly $400 a month from my paycheck. But it doesn’t just affect people in the union, it affects all our students and all our staff and everybody else, too. … This is going to potentially cripple the economy,” Excoffon said.

David Sparks, a bus driver who works in the Dayton public schools, echoed this sentiment, warning, “If this bill passes, there will be statewide strikes — we will shut this state down.”

“We came here to protect our rights and to discuss our wages with the people who employ us. We’re here to support democracy in the workplace,” said Vadeboncoeur.

Vadeboncoeur expressed anger with what she views as scapegoating union workers for a deficits raised by bank bailouts and an ever-increasing defense budget. “How come nobody’s talking about cutting defense budgets? It’s the biggest thing that goes towards our federal budget.”

Excoffon added that it was the work of the unions that made it possible for her to balance her career and family life. “Our department is mostly women, and it’s because the union helps take away a lot of the stress involved when you’re trying to balance teaching and having families.”

College senior Shannon Ikebe was one of the students involved in organizing the Oberlin students’ involvement. “This struggle is nothing but historic, and I think that people are starting to realize that,” said Ikebe.

“It’s important that we hold our elected official accountable,” said College first-year Jesse Vogel, a member of the OCDems and fellow organizer. “So often we just go to the polls and then complain in private, but now we’re actually marching into the state house, demanding change.”