December 20, 2014

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Union workers saluted at Black River Landing

Harry Williamson, the new Lorain County AFL-CIO president, speaks to a crowd during the annual Lorain County Labor Day Festival Sunday at Black River Landing in Lorain. ANNA NORRIS/CHRONICLE

Harry Williamson, the new Lorain County AFL-CIO president, speaks to a crowd during the annual Lorain County Labor Day Festival Sunday at Black River Landing in Lorain. ANNA NORRIS/CHRONICLE

LORAIN — Solidarity was preached at Sunday’s 19th annual Lorain County Labor Day Festival, as well as the first salvos of the fall election season.

Speakers said the rights of union and nonunion workers are under attack in Ohio and nationally.

“We need to keep up the fight,” state Rep. Dan Ramos, D-Lorain, told a crowd of about 400 people at Black River Landing. “We’re all in this together.”

Ramos said the increase in Ohio’s sales tax — the tax increased from 5.5 percent to 5.75 percent Sunday — will pay for tax cuts that predominantly benefit the wealthiest Ohioans. Ramos said the tax, as well as stricter voting laws around the country and congressional redistricting, are designed to give Republicans permanent majorities and are attacks on working class people.

Gov. John Kasich — who in 2011 supported a bill overturned by voters that would’ve stripped public workers of most of their collective bargaining rights — was portrayed by speakers as an enemy of working class people. “If this current governor returns for another four years, collective bargaining will be a thing of the past in Ohio,” said state Rep. Matt Lundy, D-Elyria.

Lundy said Kasich wants to run for president and will do “whatever it takes” to get re-elected.

“And who’s going to pay the price? We will,” said Lundy who is running for county commissioner because term limits forbid another run in the Legislature. “The working people of Ohio.”

Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols, who wasn’t at the festival, called Lundy’s comment’s “political blather” and denied the sales tax hurts poor and middle-income people. He cited praise for Kasich’s budget from Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, Ohio Association of Food Banks executive director. Hamler-Fugitt said the tax increase was a worthy tradeoff for Ohio’s new Earned Income Tax Credit, which reduces income taxes paid by the working poor.

Nichols was singled out for criticism by Cuyahoga County executive and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald. He accused Nichols of saying FitzGerald was unqualified to be governor, because unlike Kasich — a former Lehman Brothers executive — FitzGerald lacks a big stock portfolio.

Nichols denied making the remark. He attributed it to one of the leaders of the Ohio Republican Party.
FitzGerald, a father of four teenagers, said he and his wife, a teacher, juggle bills and aren’t rich.

“That makes me more qualified to be governor of Ohio, not less qualified,” Fitzgerald said to applause.
U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, also drew applause. She quoted 1961 comments from the Rev. Martin Luther King in which he criticized “right-to-work” laws.

Federal law bans workers from being forced to join unions, but union dues can be automatically taken from non-union workers’ paychecks at unionized jobs in states like Ohio. The “right-to-work” laws, which recently passed in Indiana and Michigan and are in effect in 24 states, forbid taking union dues automatically out of paychecks at unionized jobs, effectively de-funding unions.

By receiving the benefits of union workers without having to pay dues, union leaders said workers have little incentive to join unions and shrinking dues diminish union influence. Passage of the laws in Indiana and Michigan are part of a decline in unions.

From historic highs of about 35 percent in the 1950s, union membership nationally plummeted to an all-time low in 2012 of 11.3 percent — 6.6 percent for private sector unions — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rate was the lowest since 1916, the New York Times reported. The rate was 20.1 percent in 1983.

Kaptur said before her speech that the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it easier for unions to organize, won’t be re-introduced unless Democrats gain a majority in the House of Representatives, an unlikely prospect in the near future. Kaptur said she doesn’t blame President Barack Obama for not lobbying harder for the bill when Democrats had majorities in the House and Senate because he had “his hands full” with Afghanistan, Iraq and improving the economy.

Kaptur praised Obama for passage of the $80 billion auto bailout, which the Center for Automotive Research in 2010 estimated saved 1.14 million jobs. However, Kaptur said she voted against new trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that the centrist Obama supported and signed into law. Kaptur said free trade laws exploit foreign workers and cost Americans jobs through deindustrialization. “It comes out of the hides of American workers in places like Lorain and Elyria,” she said.

Kaptur took office in 1983 but began representing Lorain in 2012 because of congressional redistricting by state Republicans. Democrats called it gerrymandering. Kaptur told the crowd of predominantly unionized workers that the fight for unionization and worker rights has been a long and bloody battle.

“It’s a heroic struggle, and you are part of that,” she said. “I am proud to stand with you.”

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.