Alert Top Message

The AAUP office reopened on September 7, 2021. Contact information for all staff, including those working remotely or on a hybrid schedule, is available here



The Ohio AAUP and the Repeal of Senate Bill 5

Organizing begins at home but ends up statewide.
By John McNay

When I became president of the AAUP chapter at the University of Cincinnati, we had just finished negotiating a contract and had plans to sponsor a few talks about academic freedom. We had no idea that we were about to face a struggle for our existence. Senate Bill 5, eventually signed into law by Ohio governor John Kasich in March 2011, was about to change our plans.

SB 5 was such an extraordinary attack on ordinary people that it made activists out of us, including faculty members who are more accustomed to spending time at archives and laboratories than joining political battles. The ruthlessness of this attempt to limit collective bargaining by public-employee unions had caught us by surprise.

Events in 2010 had saddled the state with a governor and a legislature with extremist goals. Given the recent economic catastrophe, it was very difficult for incumbent governor Ted Strickland to combat Kasich’s claim that he could fix our economic problems. At the same time that Kasich won the governor’s office, the GOP took over the Ohio House, expanded their majority in the Ohio Senate, and swept other statewide offices; we in Ohio were faced with one-party rule.


To understand what had happened, one has to go back to the 1930s and the Great Depression. The depression had destroyed the faith that the public and government officials had in the so-called captains of industry to manage the economy. The New Deal represented a rejection of their leadership and ideology. Franklin Roosevelt assumed that there was a role for government and that putting money in the hands of ordinary people would drive the economy forward and spread prosperity.

An obscure group of European economists, now known as the Austrian School, proposed a very different answer, one that appealed to the wealthy. Frederick von Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom, argued that World War II had been brought on by the Nazi government’s involvement in the economy and that any government involvement in the economy would inevitably lead to loss of freedom and democracy. Government action was freedom’s greatest threat. One can hear echoes of Hayek today in Mitt Romney’s mantra that “America runs on freedom.”

For the corporate titans and fabulously wealthy, Hayek’s theory was welcome. They were not responsible for the Great Depression. On the contrary, they were spreading freedom and liberty. Economist Milton Friedman attended the organizational meeting in Switzerland in 1947 of Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society, returning to the University of Chicago to begin to propagate in America ideas that were rooted in the concepts of the Austrian economists.

This ideology moved from the obscure fringe of the Republican Party to the mainstream at the time of Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964. It is this badly flawed ideology that we face today in Ohio. It fuels government deficits, tax cuts for the wealthy, and even the attacks on public spending that undermine our public universities. The Tea Party folks are mistaken: Most of the ideas they are parroting do not descend from the Founding Fathers. They are Hayek’s.

Because labor unions work as a check on corporate profits by pressing for decent wages and benefits, or, in Hayek’s belief, as a check on “freedom,” labor unions have been a special right-wing target. That explains why Kasich and his supporters and allies were so determined to attack us in 2011, along with governors Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and Rick Snyder in Michigan.

Mobilizing the Faculty

The AAUP has traditionally been nonpolitical, encompassing members from across the political spectrum. Some of us who work as professors thought we were above politics—which made us all the more surprised to find that we were targeted by SB 5. As the bill moved from the senate to the house, it became more radical, and soon it included language designed to eliminate university faculty unions. Doing normal parts of our work—such as serving on promotion and tenure committees, hiring committees, or curriculum committees—would classify us as managers and make us ineligible for union membership.

Of course, if we were really managing universities, our institutions would be making very different decisions.

Ohio university presidents, through their Inter-University Council, had introduced this aspect of the legislation. The driving force appears to have been the Bowling Green State University administration, which had just lost a unionization vote. Bitter over the defeat, the administration seem to have taken aim at all faculty unions.

SB 5 took a wide range of bargaining issues off the table, including safety equipment for members of fire and police departments and class size for public school teachers. Most damaging may have been the removal of the ability to bargain health benefits: if you can’t negotiate for health care, management can take back any negotiated raise by increasing premiums. Payment of union dues by payroll deduction was also eliminated as part of the right-to-work component of the bill.

Even worse were the elimination of right to strike and of binding arbitration. SB 5 included a phony resolution process instead. If the two sides could not reach an agreement, impasse would be declared and the issue would go to the nearest “governing body.” This could be a county commission, a school board, or, as in our case, the board of trustees. Obviously, what this meant was that if you could not come to agreement then management could do what it liked.

At the UC AAUP, we reached out to friends at the Ohio Federation of Teachers and through them we received an invitation from Ohio AFL-CIO president Tim Burga to attend an organizing meeting in Columbus.

We were novices in the Ohio political world. Debby Herman, the chapter’s executive director, and I attended the meeting with hundreds of union leaders, staff, and politicians. To our surprise, we were introduced, and the crowd gave us a good long round of applause, perhaps surprised to see that the professors, too, were in the house. Former governor Strickland gave an impassioned speech. US senator Sherrod Brown called us to arms.

All over the state, labor unions were mobilizing. Our AAUP chapters began to organize through the state AAUP conference. We were reaching out, sometimes for the first time, to our friends in the labor movement.

The Ohio conference created a communications committee consisting of Marty Kich of Wright State University and Steve Aby and Dave Witt of the University of Akron . We regularly exchanged e-mails discussing strategy and tried to buck up one another. An avalanche of completely unexpected animosity was being directed at professors and other union members, and we seemed powerless to stop it. Yet we were determined.

“No matter what happens,” wrote Debby Herman, “we will live to fight another day. I promise.”

“I don’t know if we can pull this off,” wrote Rudy Fichtenbaum, professor of economics at Wright State and current president of the AAUP, “but I’m willing to go down fighting. . . . I have been known to tilt at windmills.”

“We are very proud of what you are doing in Ohio,” wrote Howard Bunsis, chair of the AAUP Collective Bargaining Congress and a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University, “and I promise you that we will stand with you no matter what.”

Then AAUP president Cary Nelson of the University of Illinois wrote a column, “Ohio Is at War.” “Like so many other principled struggles,” he wrote, “the battle in Ohio and Wisconsin to retain faculty rights is really a struggle on behalf of faculty members and public-sector employees everywhere. It is also a struggle over the soul of our democracy.”

The state AAUP conference hired Sara Kilpatrick as its new executive director on the day Senate Bill 5 was introduced. Given our traditional nonpolitical stance, Sara’s experience in the political world of Columbus proved invaluable. In fact, Debby Herman in Cincinnati and Sara in Columbus became the dynamic duo as Debby’s union experience and Sara’s political experience merged.

We initially hoped that we would be able to pressure the Ohio Senate into not adopting the bill. Faculty and other union members were urged to contact their representatives. We wrote op-eds and letters to the editor and called our legislators. We knew a handful of Republicans might not vote for SB 5. We had faith in the political process.

We were inspired by our friends in Wisconsin who were organizing massive protests in Madison. We, too, turned out in large numbers several times at the Ohio statehouse in Columbus, where thousands tried to convince the legislature not to deny us our right to bargain collectively.

There was eloquent testimony in the senate. One of the most notable speeches was delivered by Phil Hayes, grandson of legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes. He asked the legislators to think of their favorite teacher. “The one,” he said, “who motivated you to do more than the assignment; the one who inspired you to be where you are now. . . . I wonder if you were to tell them where you are, where you have been, and what you have done, what would they say about what you’re doing now?”

During the hearings, Rudy Fichtenbaum, whose specialty is labor economics, gave powerful testimony on our behalf. He dismantled the case promoted by our opponents that public employees are overpaid and a burden to the state.

But this fight was about ideology, not facts.

Two Republican senators, both lawyers, gave surprising but important testimony. They destroyed the Republican argument about the so-called resolution process. Without the ability to strike and without arbitration, Timothy Grendell pointed out, SB 5 turned collective bargaining into collective begging. Bill Seitz noted that this “tails I win, heads you lose” style of collective bargaining was likely unconstitutional.

Yet the bill passed seventeen to sixteen and rapidly moved onto the house.

We continued to make phone calls and attend rallies. On more than one occasion we had upward of fifteen thousand people crowding the statehouse grounds. Large numbers wore T-shirts of the same colors to identify their groups or carried similar signs; firefighters were wearing their helmets. It was a colorful slice of the labor movement—teachers, steelworkers, teamsters, firefighters, nurses, professors, bricklayers, auto workers, police, bakers, carpenters, janitors, and secretaries.

On one cold and blustery February day, security officers announced that, after only 1,200 had gotten inside the capitol building, they were closing the doors. On earlier occasions, thousands of people had packed the rotunda and hallways of the capitol. But this day thousands were locked outside the people’s house. They chanted, “This is our house, let us in” as it began to snow. The firefighters’ bagpipe bands played “God Bless America” and the crowd sang. Democratic lawmakers threatened to sue if the doors were not opened; security relented and allowed thousands more into the building. I never did get in.

In March, we generated a crowd of nearly five thousand in downtown Cincinnati, assembling at rush hour so that no one could miss our message. Dozens of city firefighters piped their way down the street to join. On another occasion, Rudy Fichtenbaum and I spoke at a packed Teamster’s Hall rally in Dayton, flanked by students from UC, Wright State, and Miami University.

In the house, representative Dennis Murray of Sandusky said that “Senate Bill 5 is a union-busting bill masquerading as cost control. These are moral issues involving principles of justice and participation. Unions are the thin blue line for the middle class.”

Nickie Antonio  asked: “What is the world are we doing? What have we come to that we are trying so hard to lower the bar?” A representative from Dayton, James Barnes, invoked the image of Martin Luther King Jr. He scoffed at complaints that managers could not run their cities or agencies because of the union contracts.

Alicia Reece  of Cincinnati recounted how, when her African American grandfather came home as a veteran after World War II, the only job he could get was shining shoes. Thanks to unions, who had created fair employment programs, he was able to get a job at the post office. “He was able to build his house, his piece of the American dream. The people in the labor movement, they got our backs.”

The vote went down largely along party lines, fifty-three to forty-four, with only four Republicans voting against the bill.

The debates and hearings had a surreal quality as they were broadcast through the building so the thousands of people gathered in the capitol could hear. Inside the chambers, senate president Tom Niehaus and house speaker William Batchelder, both strong SB 5 advocates, struggled to keep the galleries silent. The crowds had to resort to raising their hands and wiggling their fingers, a symbol of applause used during the Occupy protests. But jeers and cheers echoing from the massive crowds in the rotunda and hallways of the capitol were clearly audible.

When the house finally passed the bill, cries of “shame on you” and “Ohio hates you” rained down. A couple of banners were unfurled, one saying, “Your Corporate Owners Thank You,” a reference to the Koch brothers. Another read, “Thanks for Corporate Welfare.” As the crowd slowly left, defiant chants echoed.

Governor Kasich scheduled a celebratory signing that evening, broadcast on statewide television. Flanked by Niehaus and Batchelder and Senator Shannon Jones, who had submitted the bill and was the bill’s only sponsor, the governor enthusiastically misrepresented the union-busting bill as a modest and reasonable attempt to provide balance.

Fighting Back

Unions had already begun to talk about what they would do if the bill passed. We Are Ohio, the organization that would lead the drive to repeal SB 5, had already been created. Differences were put aside, and unions joined together in historic collaboration.

Yet the campaign against SB 5 was more than just a union campaign. We were joined by a significant number of faith and progressive groups, including the Amos Project from the Catholic Church, various black ministers’ organizations, the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Council, and the Blue-Green Alliance of the Sierra Club. SB 5 supporters soon launched their own organization, Building a Better Ohio or, as we dubbed it, Bitter Ohio.

One central difference between Ohio and Wisconsin is that in Ohio it is possible to repeal legislation by public referendum. We needed 10 percent of the votes cast in the last election on a petition to get Senate Bill 5 on the ballot for repeal. That meant 231,000 signatures, with at least 10 percent in each of forty-four of Ohio’s eighty-eight counties. About ten thousand signature gatherers, almost all of them union members, got to work. At our universities, we collaborated with students to gather thousands of signatures. During the ninety days that we had, you could hardly go to any public event in Ohio without encountering signature gatherers.

We knew we were doing well, but how well stunned even us—and surely stunned our opponents. In a parade of thousands in Columbus on June 29, we delivered nearly 1.3 million signatures. We needed a semitruck to carry them. So massive was the delivery that the secretary of state’s office had to call in a structural engineer to see if the office floor could handle the weight.

Senate Bill 5 became Issue 2 on the ballot, and it was debated on statewide public television, by local civic groups, and, of course, in bars and on street corners. “No on 2” bumper stickers proliferated. Faculty joined their union colleagues all over the state in phone banking. For those uncomfortable with approaching strangers, we created “Friends and Family,” a program that helped people talk with people they knew.

Both sides launched TV campaigns. This presented a challenge for the pro-SB 5 side, because they could find almost no one to appear apart from Kasich and the mayor of Toledo (who was subsequently defeated in his reelection attempt). The situation on the anti-SB 5 side was different—our ads featured firefighters, nurses, and teachers, all real people warning about the dire consequences of SB 5. John Glenn, the former Ohio senator and astronaut, said in one ad: “Here in Ohio, we rely on everyday heroes to teach our children, take care of the sick, and keep our communities safe. Issue 2 will make it harder for teachers, nurses, firefighters, and other public employees to protect and serve us.”

Another ad was about a little girl in Cincinnati whom firefighters had saved from a burning home. It featured her grey-haired great-grandmother, Marlene Quinn. “When the fire broke out, there wasn’t a moment to spare,” Quinn explained in the ad. “If it were not for the firefighters, we wouldn’t have our Zoey today,” she continued, as film of a happy Zoey at play filled the screen. Quinn went on: “How many of those politicians have ever fought a fire? Those politicians don’t care about the middle class. They’ve turned their backs on all of us. I don’t want the politicians in Columbus making decisions for the firefighters, the police, teachers, nurses, or any organization that is helping the people.”

We were sometimes fearful that our coalition would not hold together, but we were encouraged when, early on, the police and firefighters declined Kasich’s offer to cut a separate deal with them.

On August 17, facing a looming defeat, Kasich offered to negotiate. We Are Ohio responded firmly, a spokesperson telling a room packed with reporters, “These politicians who passed Senate Bill 5 have the ability to repeal the law, and that’s what they should do. We stand together with the 1.3 million Ohioans who signed the petition and want a no vote on Issue 2.”

In the final weeks, there was a debate televised statewide and moderated by NBC’s Chuck Todd. State Republican senator Keith Faber represented the pro-SB 5 side and former Ohio congressperson Dennis Eckert the anti-SB 5 side. Eckert was eloquent in his concluding statement. “Seldom in the history of Ohio,” he said, “have the people had such a unique opportunity to stand and be counted.”

The final vote on November 8, 2011, was 61.33 percent to 39.67 percent. Only five counties voted in favor of the union-busting bill. The three most populous counties—where Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati are located—voted overwhelmingly against the bill. And perhaps most important, more Ohioans voted against SB 5 than voted for Kasich back in 2010.

In the final days of the SB 5 fight, Philip Morris, a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, wrote: “This is a war that Kasich started without discussions. He awoke the sleeping middle class labor giant. We as a state are now in the necessary process of finding out a lot about ourselves. The referendum war on SB 5 is a just war that will provide answers to a host of moral, social, and economic questions.”


I’m afraid the fight goes on. Public education is under constant siege at all levels, and we can expect to face another fight over right-to-work legislation in the near future. The day after SB 5 was defeated, a Tea Party group announced that it was launching a referendum to put a right-to-work initiative on the ballot. But with a lack of organization and support, they have not been successful.

There had been hope that a challenger to John Kasich would be able to unseat the governor responsible for SB 5, but the Democratic candidate was found to have fatal flaws. The result, with a record low turnout of about 40 percent of registered voters, was a Republican sweep of the election.

But there is reason for hope.

We Are Ohio still exists and is vigilant. Unions and progressive groups and faith-based organizations today have an appreciation of the necessity of working together for the common good that was uncommon before SB 5.

And the SB 5 experience has had a transformative experience on the Ohio AAUP conference. We’ve restructured our board to make it larger and more representative, our statewide membership approved a dues increase to provide the conference with more resources, we’ve testified regularly at legislative committees on issues important to us, and we’ve joined coalitions to promote adequate funding for higher education in Ohio.


Much to our surprise, on April 14, 2015, our executive director, Sara Kilpatrick, who closely monitors the legislature, discovered that the same Yeshiva language that had been in Senate Bill 5 had been quietly inserted into the budget bill in the House finance committee.
On April 16, I gave testimony to the House finance committee, explaining in detail why this was such a bad idea. I emphasized the connection to SB 5 and said that no one wins the kind of divisive and bitter battle that we would face if this language was not removed. I explained that if legislators were worried about costs, the real costs in higher education lie in administrative bloat, runaway athletic budgets, and grandiose construction projects.

By a fortunate coincidence, the AAUP’s CBC was meeting in Cincinnati on April 18 in conjunction with our state conference board meeting. We had begun brainstorming immediately about what to do and on that Saturday had a tense and productive meeting that was attended by Howard Bunsis, president of the AAUP-CBC, and Julie Schmid, the AAUP’s executive director. President Rudy Fichtenbaum, who is also a member of our state board, was there as well.

Using, in large part, the experience and tools we developed during the SB 5 campaign, we created a plan and mobilized our faculty across the state. Chapter members and leadership at Ohio colleges and universities organized their own faculty and put in long hours. We made use of social media, including Twitter and Facebook. E-mails containing the names, contact information, and twitter handles of House finance committee members went out to all Ohio AAUP faculty. The national AAUP offered staff and expertise.

We reached also out to our friends in the broader labor movement. The AFL-CIO sent a message asking its members to contact the House finance committee about the attack on faculty. We worked closely with the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the Ohio Education Association, and other unions. These, of course, were ties that we had forged during the SB 5 fight.

In the end, somewhat to our surprise, on April 20, the House finance committee removed the language before it voted to pass the bill. We anticipated a longer fight over the issue, but our ability to organize and mobilize our resources certainly had a lot to do with this outcome. It was also probably important that we had had meetings with nearly all the finance committee members over the previous several weeks to talk about problems in higher education. They knew the AAUP and our work to a degree they had not in the past.

If this had happened a decade ago, little of the statewide infrastructure as well as the ties with like-minded groups would have existed. Ironically, the SB 5 fight lends some truth to the saying, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

John T. McNay is a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati–Blue Ash. A specialist on the Cold War, he has published books and articles on that period, but his most recent book is Collective Bargaining and the Battle of Ohio: The Defeat of Senate Bill 5 and the Struggle to Defend the Middle Class. McNay is the recipient of the 2015 Al Sumberg Award, which is given to an AAUP member for enhancing lobbying for higher education on the state level.


After struggling to read through this painfully biased article, I came to the realization that people like you are what is wrong with this country. Unions need checks. Unions help few. Labeling Governor Kasich as "extremist" is possibly the most absurd thing I've read in years. Be ashamed of yourselves.

Add new comment

We welcome your comments. See our commenting policy.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.