JULIE CARR SMYTH 04/ 1/11 05:50 PM ET
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Opponents of bills in Ohio, Wisconsin and other states curtailing public employees’ collective bargaining rights have planned a series of protests beginning this weekend that they’re tying to the legacy of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
Pro-labor forces and environmentalists are among those joining forces to bolster opposition to laws limiting union might by linking the current battle to blacks’ fight for racial equality in the 1960s. They call it “reviving the dream.”
In Ohio, a bill signed Thursday by Republican Gov. John Kasich bans public worker strikes, eliminates binding arbitration, and restricts bargaining for 350,000 public workers to wages and certain working conditions.
The bill was supported by majority Republicans in the Legislature and lauded by business groups and tea party activists as necessary to Ohio’s economic future. Unions and Democrats opposed the measure, which drew thousands of protesters to the Statehouse over the past month.
The AFL-CIO, a union umbrella group, announced Friday that it was staging 20 protest rallies in 14 cities across Ohio. Most are on Monday, the anniversary of King’s 1968 assassination in Memphis. About 20 states will see similar rallies, including Maine, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Missouri, Florida and Minnesota.
The group noted King was supporting 1,300 striking city sanitation workers in Memphis when he was killed.
“On the eve of his death … Martin Luther King, Jr. declared: ‘Work that serves humanity . It has dignity and it has worth,'” a promotional flier for the protests said.
Matt Mayer, president of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a Columbus-based free market think tank, called the King strategy “a nice inflammatory connection.” He said he doesn’t believe the protests represent mainstream Ohio.
“The silent majority has looked at an Ohio that has fallen behind the rest of the country in the last 20 years while their neighbors in government have achieved record levels of compensation,” he said. “Though they may not make it down to the Statehouse for a protest, they’re tired and they know Ohio needs to break from the status quo.”
Kasich said during Thursday night’s bill-signing that backers of collective bargaining restrictions want to lift up families of both government workers and public sector workers by giving governments more flexibility to control costs.
The University of Cincinnati’s Ohio Poll, released March 14, found that 40 percent of Ohio adults approved and 47 percent disapproved of the governor, including 60 percent of blacks.
Kasich’s campaign sent out an email ahead of Thursday’s signing soliciting funds to fight the likely ballot campaign that would overturn the hard-fought law. Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern has also begun soliciting funds for a campaign to overturn the law.
Jesse Jackson, a King protege, visited Ohio when the bill was moving through Senate and spoke out against it again on Friday. In a statement, Jackson pledged his Rainbow PUSH Coalition will help gather more than 230,000 valid signatures needed by June 30 to put a referendum on November’s ballot.
“It disregards the fundamental American right of checks and balances in public affairs, and the right of workers to negotiate working conditions and benefits in their best interest,” he said. “It strikes at the hearts of working men and women that keep the state running.”
A coalition of religious leaders opposed to collective bargaining restrictions also invoked King when it spoke out against the Ohio bill in March, as did the Sierra Club.
“The same corporate interests that want to limit workers’ rights also want to weaken environmental rights,” said Rachele Huennekens, a grass-roots coordinator for the environmental group. “It’s all one struggle, it’s one fight.”
Rebecca Heimlich, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Ohio, a conservative advocacy group that supported the measure, argued that the bill provides workers greater freedom. She cited a provision that prohibits the collection of union dues from people who don’t wish to join.
“One thing unions are very good at, they’re good at messaging,” she said. “One of my frustrations is that they twist the truth … . This bill is giving state employees more liberty. I don’t see how Martin Luther King could disagree with that.”