Oberlin’s Student Labor Action Coalition held its second rally against Ohio Senate Bill 5, a new law that weakens the collective bargaining rights of public workers, on Tuesday in West Lecture Hall. The rally marked the beginning of a petition-gathering campaign led by Oberlin College Democrats, part of a statewide effort by the grassroots organization We Are Ohio to collect the 213,149 signatures needed by June 30 to put the law to a referendum in November’s elections.
The event featured speeches by union leaders, community members and students, a written statement from Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, as well as protest songs performed by the student band, called Mary Claire and the Union Boys. The rally was scheduled to take place in Tappan Square but was moved to West Lecture Hall because of rain. As a result, there was a smaller turnout than expected. Only about 50 people — mostly students, but faculty and local residents as well -— were in attendance.
College sophomore Lena Amick, a member of SLAC who helped organize the rally, said that while she was “disappointed” that more people didn’t come, it was nevertheless “nice to have a ceremonial kick-off” to the petition campaign. And the speeches, she added, were “awesome.”
Joe Thayer, president of the Lorain County Labor Council, spoke about the law’s impact on the middle class, describing it as a misguided attempt to cut costs at the expense of ordinary people. “This country was built on the backs of workers,” he said. “Let’s fix the economy the right way.”
College sophomore Joe Condon, co-chair of OC Democrats, discussed the ongoing petition campaign. Starting last Thursday, 10 student volunteers have now collected over 500 signatures. According to Condon, this is a good start, but “a lot of work” remains to be done. “Ohio is the swing state of swing states,” he said. “A victory here is a victory for working people across the country.”
College sophomore Annie Lukins, a member of SLAC and a Student Senator, related her own path to activism to the issues presented by S.B. 5. “I didn’t come to Oberlin to be political. I came here for art and neuroscience,” she said. “But if being in support of working families makes me political, then I am political.”
Perhaps the most entertaining speech of the night came from Janet Garrett, a kindergarten teacher at Oberlin’s Eastwood Elementary School. In keeping with her line of work, she issued the crowd an “assignment,” which turned out to have six parts, including signing the petition, staying informed and, lastly, mailing President Obama a pair of shoes “with a nice note saying we could really use his help in Ohio.” This was a reference to a promise he made while campaigning, that if workers were denied their right to collective bargaining, he would put on some “comfortable shoes” and “walk on that picket line with [them] as president of the United States.”
But Garrett ended on a serious note, reminding the audience that they need to “fight back” against S.B. 5, and that they can only do so if they “stick together and make a lot of noise.”
Despite their relatively small numbers, those in attendance were quick to take her advice. The speeches ended to loud applause, and Mary Claire and the Union Boys took the stage one last time for rousing renditions of the classic labor songs “Solidarity Forever” and “Union Maid.” When they reached the choruses, nearly everyone sang along, making the most noise a group can in a lecture hall.